Though the name Andrei Rublyov means next-to-nothing to all but the most sophisticated Westerner, most Russians—even the poorest, least-educated and most provincial—recognize the name of the greatest of all medieval icon painters. Andrei Rublyov once lived and breathed, and his work survives to this day, but very little is known about the man himself. Which is perhaps the very reason the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky chose this simple monk as the protagonist of his epic film.

"Rublyov's life-story is a complete mystery," Tarkovsky and his collaborator, Andrei Konchalovsky, wrote in their screenplay synopsis. "We have no intention of unraveling the riddle of his life. We wish to see, through the eyes of a poet, that wonderful and terrible age when the great Russian nation was taking form and shape and coming into its own."

It was an enormous undertaking. Tarkovsky applied to the Communist film board in 1961, even before he made his well-received Ivan's Childhood. A contract was signed in 1962. In 1963 the film treatment he submitted was passed, and in April 1964 he was finally allowed to begin work.

Filming lasted more than a year, from September 1964 until November 1965. The first cut was not screened until August 1966, and Russian audiences didn't seen the finished work until late in December of that year.

Andrei Rublyov is epic in scope and intent, and demands—as does all Tarkovsky's work— extremely attentive viewing. It is an absolute certainly that a single casual screening will not begin to plumb the depths of its profundity.

It's the "art film" to end all art films, and watching it on video, frankly, is a crime against cinema. Let the buyer/renter beware: this film, once you "get it," is like a drug. It becomes, eventually, the standard against which all other films are judged.

The plot couldn't be simpler: A sincere and unassuming medieval icon painter, who happens to be a monk, is drafted into service by the greatest artist of the age to aid in the creation of his masterpiece and—in fact—to succeed him. The monk is witness to enormous social change: war, heroism, love, hate, and indifference, and as a result he changes from a theoretical man, a pedant locked in a monastery, into a complete human being, an artist with an irresistible story to tell. The monk returns to his little parish to create what Tarkovsky believes to be the first true Russian work of art, built as it is upon the failures and triumphs of a painfully-united people. The action spans a quarter of a century, from 1400 to 1423, a period of enormous unrest in Russian history, and consists of eight episodes, each of which has its own title and date.

However (and it's a big however) the very first thing we see on the screen is a prologue, an episode unto itself, which bears, on the surface, absolutely NO relationship to anything in the film that follows it. Observed with stunningly-composed Cinemascope virtuosity, a crowd gathers to watch a man (who might be insane if not suicidal) take a hot-air balloon flight from the bell tower of a church in a small town across the countryside to his (apparent) death. The medieval detail and dramatic inevitability of the episode is stunning. The viewer realizes he is in the hands of a master from the very first frame. And yet, when the balloon ultimately crashes and the screen transitions to the first episode, "The Mummers 1400," truly, we must ask ourselves, What was that about?

Tarkovsky has chosen, and not for the last time, to explore the soul of the artist in Andrei Rublyov. It would seem to me that this breath-taking episode is a metaphorical microcosm of the process every artist undertakes in the moment of creation. Just as I had only a vague idea of the shape of this essay when I started it, so Tarkovsky's balloonist has only a vague idea of the shape of his life after he untethers that balloon. "I'm flying!" he cries, and there it is: the earth with its trees and churches and astonished onlookers and lakes and geese and boats and, ultimately, its blue sky and white clouds and its inevitable unknowability. And it is wonderful and it is terrifying and it is, quite literally, a trip. From earth's cold hard reality to the heavens (God's abode) and back again.

This film was reviled when the artist screened it in Moscow in 1966. Where is the grandeur of the flowering of Russian culture? Why the extreme violence? The surprising nudity? Why is the film so hard to understand? The Soviet government refused to enter Andrei Rublyov in the Cannes Film Festival in 1967, in spite of the fact that a Soviet film retrospective had been planned and the director's previous work, Ivan's Childhood, had been an utter triumph. The film would not be "officially" released in the Soviet Union until 1971, ten years after its conception, but by that time it had become a cause celebre, universally accepted as a masterpiece.

A braver artist has never existed in the film medium. In response to his detractors (who were not only simple film-goers-off-the-street, but also powerful government officials who held the keys to any future work he might want to do in the Soviet Union) Tarkovsky wrote, in a letter to the chairman of the State Committee for the Cinema:

"I would be so bold as to call myself an artist, and more than that, a Soviet artist. My two guiding beacons are what I can create, and life itself. When it comes to problems of form, I seek new ways forward. This is always arduous and can potentially lead to conflict and unpleasantness, so that I cannot count on being able to live a cosy little life in a nice flat, untroubled by anything. What is demanded of me is courage, and in this respect, I will try not to betray the trust that you have shown me."

Andrei Rublyov defines—for all time—cinematic virtuosity. There is a stunning battle scene, terrifying in its realistic detail, that forces Rublyov to commit an unforgivable act. An incredibly erotic walpurgisnacht, magical as only woman's secret can be, leads him to an illusion of serenity-found before unimaginable cruelty is seered into his soul. There is laughter, side-by-side with tears. Heartache cheek-to-cheek with joy. And there is God. And there is The Other. And these are the things Andrei Tarkovsky, through his simple protagonist, transforms into art.

So Andrei Rublyov is art about Art about God. Complex. Transformative. Absolutely uncompromising. Definitely worth whatever it costs for you to experience it.

Andrei Rublyov (1969)

Directed by
Andrei Tarkovsky

Written by
Andrei Konchalovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky

Anatoli Solonitsyn .... Andrei Rublyov
Ivan Lapikov .... Kirill
Nikolai Grinko .... Daniil Cherny
Nikolai Sergeyev .... Feofan Grek
Irma Raush .... Idiot girl (Durochka)
Nikolai Burlyayev .... Boriska
Yuri Nazarov .... Grand Prince/his brother
Yuri Nikulin .... Monk Patrikey
Rolan Bykov .... The jester
Nikolai Grabbe
Mikhail Kononov .... Foma
Stepan Krylov (II) .... Bell-founder
Irina Miroshnichenko
Bolot Bejshenaliyev .... Tatar Khan
rest of cast listed alphabetically
K. Aleksandrov
E. Borisovsky
Igor Donskoy .... Christ
Nikolai Glazkov
Vladimir Guskov
Nikolai Kutuzov
I. Loskoy
B. Matysik
Anatoli Obukhov
Tamara Ogorodnikova
Dmitri Orlovsky
P. Radolitskaya
Muratbek Ryskulov
G. Sachevsko
Aleksandr Titov
Vladimir Titov
A. Umuraliyev
Vasili Vasilyev
Vladimir Volkov
Zinaida Vorkul
N. Vykov

Also Known As:
Andrei Rublev (1972) (USA)
Passion According to Saint Andrew, The (Europe: English title: literal English translation of Russian working title)
Strasti po Andreiu (Soviet Union: Russian title: working title)
áÎÄÒÅÊ òÕÌ£¥ (1969) (Soviet Union: Russian title: original Cyrillic KOI8-R title)
Runtime: 205 (director's cut) / Soviet Union:145 (even shorter version) / Soviet Union:165 (shorter version) / Soviet Union:186 (cut version)
Country: Soviet Union
Language: Russian / Italian
Color: Black and White / Color
Sound Mix: Mono
Certification: Argentina:13 / Finland:K-16 / Sweden:15

Tarkovsky—Cinema as Poetry, trans. Natasha Ward, London: Faber and Faber, 1989.
The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky—A Visual Fugue, Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie,Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Sculpting in Time, Andrey Tarkovsky, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
Charles Durning
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries

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