Andrei Rublev (1966) was Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s second feature film. And while his debut, My Name is Ivan (1962), was the work of someone with a well-developed visual singularity, Rublev was the one that announced the presence of a world-class talent and first staked out his themes of the function of faith and art in an increasingly brutal, secularized world. It’s a debut that was delayed by the Soviet authorities and then circulated in the ’70s in a version edited down from its intended three hours. The suppression and then censorship were possibly due to its harsh view of Russian history and definitely due to its fragmented, avant-garde structure, something that would seem decadent and crypto-subversive to the puritanical pooh-bahs of a totalitarian state.
Now it can be seen intact and restored in all its black-and-white dreamlike glory. Ostensibly a biopic of a 15th century monk and icon painter, of whom little is known, the film consists of nine sections, some involving Rublev directly, some only marginally. Rublev’s story isn’t one of early adversity and mature success, but rather that of a man who’s sensitivity led him to an increasing withdrawal from the world, eventually taking a vow of silence which lasted for years.
The film is a chronicle of horrors which the artist can only witness and endure — his one attempt at outreach, to save a young mute girl, ends badly — until his artistic efforts seem pointless and vain. It’s not until the eighth section when, as an old man, Rublev watches a young boy leading a crew of workers in the creation of a huge bell, an act in which faith and instinct triumph over lack of craftsmanship, that he’s moved to return to his art and make those icons on which his fame rests (and which we see in a final section, with the movie switching to color).
This is an uneven film. The bell sequence seems perfect, as does an earlier one involving an unfortunate jester — and the ongoing plight of fellow monk Kirill, whose envy of Rublev leads to his downfall, is compelling. But sections detailing a pagan ceremony and a Tartar invasion seem a little too self-consciously picturesque. Still, it’s Tarkovsky’s first major work and — being a case where the word “visionary” isn’t hyperbolic — essential viewing.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.