50 years, 50 films: Andrei Rublev (1969)
Our series featuring a film a year from the past half-century takes in a contemplative Andrei Tarkovsky masterpiece
We shouldn’t be surprised that Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic about a 15th century master of Russian icon painting seemed to emerge untouched by the various social and political changes buzzing through Europe in the late 1960s. Not only was the film produced within the Soviet Union, it had in fact been shot a full four years earlier. Indeed, some sources credit it as a 1966 film. Others argue that it was released in 1971. After various feuds with the Soviet authorities (who weren’t so keen on the way Tarkovsky wove religion into Russian identity), the director eventually managed to deliver a version to the Cannes Film Festival in 1969.
For all that, there are still accidental hints of the Age of Aquarius running through the picture. Observe the sequence about a quarter of the way in which finds Andrei and his younger apprentice encountering a group of pagans dancing nakedly by the river. They are practically abducted by the proto-hippies and the hero finds himself in danger of being ever-so-slightly crucified. Then the pigs arrive and drag the free-spirits away.
Rublev is, in fact, one of those contemplative art films that rather suits chemically enhanced contemplation. Like all the great director’s films, it is composed of shots that rarely hurry to their conclusion. Nobody is likely to leap out at you too unexpectedly. Vadim Yusov, Tarkovsky’s regular cinematographer, works hard at allowing elegant lines to divide the frame in golden ratios. You can easily sink into the picture and allow it to deaden your intellect.
That, of course, would be the wrong thing to do. For too long Tarkovsky’s films have been viewed as a sort of audio-visual meditation aids. That was very far from his intent. Though there is usually something “spiritual” going on, the pictures always slip in hard philosophical arguments that seek to stimulate the busier parts of the brain. Rublev is, of course, a sort of cinematic poem. But it is also a contemplation on the end of the medieval age and the coming of the time of the Tsars. The Soviet authorities were annoyed by it. But they were also confused. And that was just as troubling a condition.
As a result of that confusion, the film proved hard to see for some years after its first outing in Cannes. A piece in The Guardian from 1973 illustrates the point. Michael McNay wrote:
“It may be the theme of the individual bucking the system that has brought about the film’s strange fate. It won a prize at Cannes in 1969 then disappeared. It has been announced on occasions since, but failed to appear. Other than the press screening at the NFT this week, no shows in London have been planned. Maybe its producers, Mosfilm, are waiting for reactions to its single screening at the – dare one say? – relatively obscure Edinburgh International film festival to decide on the film’s future as far as western screenings go.”
Mr McNay need not have worried. The film gradually secured its place as one of the great works of world cinema and — as Tarkovsky’s fame grew with Solaris and Stalker — helped secure that film-maker his place in the pantheon. It seems formless. It drifts from scene to scene. But its tonal coherence is never in question.
Other films considered for 1969 included Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Kes and Z. Find the complete series here.