Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic film about Andrei Roublev, Russia’s most famous icon painter, is a remarkable, deeply reflexive examination of the artist’s role in his particular social-historical reality. It is also concerned with the split that occurs between an artist’s elevated desire to create an art of clear, transcendent beauty and one that is responsive to the immediate world as it is: characterised by violence and suffering. Although Tarkovsky’s film is suffused with an idiosyncratically heroic vision of the artist, its insistence on an art informed by the world as it is rather than as we might like it to be, informs and problematises its content, immediate context and reception. Its titular character, the young Monk Roublev, renounces his art in the face of its apparent irrelevance to reality, and then wanders through the film/world in often-silent observation. The film itself presented a very different vision of heroism and history than the one desired by Soviet film and state authorities of the time. It also confounded the expectations of audiences awaiting an exotic widescreen epic about a famous Russian artist from the Middle Ages.
While most of the important films of 1966 essay their contemporary modernity on screen, with an immediate impact on critics and audiences, Andrei Roublev forces us instead to more deeply consider the complex historical, cultural and political context that surrounds its production and reception. The film’s Middle Ages setting, its Soviet origins, and the notorious problems it suffered gaining a proper release, as well as the multiple versions in existence, have rendered the film’s impact fragmentary and gradual. The original 205-minute version, entitled The Passion According to Andrei, was finished and ready for distribution in July 1966 (1). In terms of authorship and production, but not immediate critical and audience response, the film can in this sense be regarded a key product of this important year in world cinema (2). Tarkovsky’s film had a notably bigger budget than many of its European contemporaries, and its sheer scale and size positions it superficially closer to the epic Hollywood and Japanese samurai cinema of the time than the post-war European art-film. Sitting completely outside of the usual modalities of classical, modernist or pop classification or hybridity, this massive work was also far from narratively or aesthetically familiar to either commercial or “new wave” eyes and minds of the era.
Andrei Roublev couldn’t have been made anywhere else or at any other time. By the time it was completed its moment had passed. The liberalisation of the cultural sphere in the USSR during the period of Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership, commonly known as “the Thaw”, and which enabled the making and release of Tarkovsky’s celebrated first feature, Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood), in 1962, was the context in which Andrei Roublev was first approved and budgeted. By 1966 much had changed (Khrushchev himself had been deposed in 1964). And yet following a Moscow screening of the film for various critics and “officials”, it was declared a “significant work of art” and provisionally garnered the necessary approval for release. However, Tarkovsky’s film was also denied the all-important certificate necessary for a proper release (3). Soon substantial cuts were requested. Desperate to get his film seen by the public, Tarkovsky acquiesced, ultimately shortening it to a length of 186 minutes. This version then screened at the prestigious Dom Kino, garnering both ecstatic responses and further criticism. That this version is the one most commonly seen today is partly a result of Tarkovsky’s later claims that it was his preferred cut. Although many critics have subsequently treated the second official cut as definitive, Tarkovsky’s declaration needs to be seen in its personal and historical context (4).
Requests for even more cuts followed. Tarkovsky refused. Subsequently, the film was discussed extensively at the highest levels of the Soviet film bureaucracy (at Mosfilm and Goskino) and of the Communist Party itself. The resulting stalemate meant that the film was effectively shelved until it was requested for the screening at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival (5). After more stonewalling by the Soviet authorities, Andrei Roublev was eventually screened at Cannes out-of-competition (at 4 am.), and was subsequently awarded the International Critics’ Prize (6). The film was not released in the USSR until 1971, when it became a huge success (despite Tarkovsky’s complaints about the lack of publicity and press coverage), partially as a result of being recognised as the most famous shelved film of its era. Finally, following Tarkovsky’s death, in 1988 the original 205-minute version was released in the USSR as, once again, The Passion According to Andrei, receiving a rapturous critical and audience response (7).
There has been a lot of conjecture about what it was that the Soviet authorities found so objectionable in the film. Vita T. Johnson and Graham Petrie suggest that the first official complaints in 1966 singled-out the film’s “excessive violence”, “naturalism”, and “anti-Historical and anti-Russian, cruel and harmful” qualities (8). But once the film was finally released, five years later, any negative reaction was just as likely to concern rather more prosaic issues, equivalent versions of which are familiar in many other national contexts. There were huge expectations upon its eventual release for this historical epic about the country’s most famous icon painter, but in failing to “live up to genre expectation for an audience nurtured on patriotic epics glorifying Russia, it questioned such films’ underlying cultural myths of Russia’s historical greatness” (9) But, more broadly, what proved problematic for the film in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union was also a key factor in Tarkovsky’s ultimate ascension – after his death and in post-communist Russia – to the status of the greatest post-war Soviet film artist. He has been subsequently seen as the filmmaker who mined the deepest, most mystical veins of Russian cultural identity, moving beyond the vicissitudes of modern history and politics. In the post-communist period, Tarkovsky’s reputation has only expanded and globalised.
While it is unwise to search for overt markers of conscious “opposition” within the film (so beloved of some Western critics interpreting Communist bloc-era art), there is no doubt that Andrei Roublev is dripping with things Soviet cinema “didn’t want”. Every scene – be it through human representation (e.g. characters’ dialogue and performance) or the overall formal-thematic layering – is imbued with a heavy spiritual yearning specific to its heritage. The film espouses no clear “socialist” analysis and seems to extol “bourgeois” individual effort and expression as a kind of zenith: the special “calling” of the privileged subject, the artist. However, reality itself (and the “people”) plays a very important role in “cautioning” the artist’s purpose and faith (within his art and more generally), his eyes gradually opened to the need for an art that is directly responsive to socio-political reality and history. This element may have been more apparent at the time of the film’s release, had all these elements not been rendered through a form that bears no clear connection to realism, socialist or otherwise. Even so, while the film is, on the one hand, hardly realistic in familiar ideological or perceptual sense, it sometimes plays on screen as a particularly graceful, moody, though frequently abstract, dream version of a magical “newsreel” of pre-industrial Russian life – gritty and sublime, objective and oneiric, logical and labyrinthine.
The film does offer, nevertheless, a kind of thematic heroism, but of a kind unfamiliar to both Hollywood and Soviet models of the time. This is especially clear in light of Brezhnev-era repression and the USSR’s overall attitude (at least from Stalin onwards) towards artistic freedom. But this heroism is also troubling, at least in retrospect, accounting for a key part of the film’s role and reputation as a misty talisman for the reactionary Russian Orthodox resurgence of the last two decades.
The film’s portrayal of the Middle Ages is, perhaps, surprisingly gritty (particularly if you have seen any of Tarkovsky’s other films); its notable violence, in particular, making for a tough vision of reality (10). The arrival of elegant emissaries from Renaissance Florence in the film’s final hour puts into stark relief how grimy and “backward” Russia was at this time. Yet the film is also deeply “patriotic”, showing a culture far less travelled down the road of enlightened reason than its Western European counterparts (but a culture that is still able to create remarkable things, and is guided by something more “substantial”). This is seen in an extended sequence featuring the casting of a huge church-bell by a teenage boy who does not have the proper engineering know-how, and is driven by faith alone (we are shown this creatively – or “intuitively” – guided manufacturing process at great length). Roublev’s icons themselves also, finally, illustrate this. While science and reason were the new tools by which the Italians forged a renewed Western civilisation, Tarkovsky extols what can be done with more primitive and “mysterious” materials.
The film’s form and central theme are perhaps more perfectly “of a piece” than any other Tarkovsky film (except the overtly autobiographical, self-reflexive density of Zerkalo [Mirror, 1975]). Amongst its most notable features are the virtuosic, often crane-mounted tracking shots that run for many minutes of duration, and help create a truly remarkable mise en scène: a cast of what looks like hundreds if not thousands; a wide array of animals; crumbling but grand churches; rustic archetypal farm houses; and the dense textures and light of a sublime wilderness (11). But the film’s formal-thematic coherence is far from conventionally recognisable; this is a decidedly strange film considering its notional topic. Our alleged protagonist is often not on screen and routinely observes life in silence. We also see nothing of his art until the famous final minutes when the actual icons he painted seem to emerge from beneath the earth (a key reflexive moment within the Pantheistic strain of Tarkovsky’s vision of art) – an effect created through a trademark “mysterious” shot that snakes away from the artist-to-come and the exhausted bell-caster (who has inspired Roublev through his faith-“art” achievement). Down through the embers and seemingly into the soil we go, the ashen greys turning to murky browns, as the film bursts into colour. It then reveals the constantly moving, elliptical visions of the icons (though no complete work is shown), the art our titular hero will presumably produce after the film but out of the worldly experiences episodically rendered on screen.
So we do finally get to see at least parts of Roublev’s fabled art, a filmic gesture that acts like a long-delayed exclamation mark in its use of radiant colours complemented by loud religious music. At the very end, we see such art’s possible future effect on the world that inspired its creation. In the film’s most self-conscious gesture, the final shots restore “reality” for the first time (in most prints) by shifting to colour: concluding with a lovely tableau of horses standing in the rain. But although we wait three more than hours to see the icons, we never see Roublev at work – we only journey through a diverse array of landscapes, and material and social realities.
These concerns and preoccupations are mapped-out from the start of the film. For example, precisely none of the primary characters appear in the film’s masterful first sequence, an emphasis that exemplifies Andrei Roublev’s preoccupation with thematic material, aesthetic form and “atmosphere” at the expense of narrative and character development. In a series of stunning, often spectacular, swooping widescreen shots, we are shown a man’s short but exhilarating aerial mission in a primitive hot-air balloon. We see this through a truly magical topographical gaze upon the earth from “impossible” flight (accompanied by the man’s delighted cries and threateningly plucked low piano strings on the soundtrack). This Icarus-like figure’s final resting place and presumed death is registered by a loud thud and a brief freeze-frame, followed by an emblematic Tarkovsky image of a horse, a motif that helps connect the scene to the rest of the film (as well as his future oeuvre). The creature struggles in slow-motion with its back on the ground, legs flailing in the air, but its graceful movements as framed against the layered greys of land, water, sky and a gnarled tree, come across less as a figure of “fallen-ness” than as suggesting a sublime creative effort of, and within, earthly life. The questing hero may have failed, but creativity and “symbolic” promise remain.
Andrei Roublev’s treatment of art, as first staged in the prologue and gradually, variously moulded throughout the ensuing film, is certainly more heroic than that found in the other more recognisably “modern” films of 1966, and their treatment of art and authorship (particularly a film like Blowup). In many ways, such a comparison is unfair, and makes Tarkovsky look like a decidedly religious and conservative proselytiser of pre-modern ideas about artistic worth and cultural purpose. But any simple comparison overlooks important historical, political and cultural contexts. Such a view also reinforces a rather self-satisfied, sceptical Western attitude that insists that we know how one should think about such matters. But Tarkovsky’s mysterious, quintessentially Romantic address is at its heart a meditation on what the artist, or “author”, is, and how (s/)he reacts and seeks to turn reality into art. Idiosyncratically heroic it might be, but the film keeps asking questions familiar to more sceptical (and post-) modern minds and films as well (for example, via much darker treatment in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, 1966): Is art relevant to contemporary life, or is it merely a self-indulgent and ideological deification of the individual subject?
The disconnect that occurs between more “sceptical” eyes and minds and Andrei Roublev’s towering spiritually-imbued meditation on the artist is part of the film’s ongoing challenge and radicalism. Herein lies its perennially “untimely” power (in the Nietzschean sense), as being both out-of-step with the Soviet reality into which it first appeared and, in many ways, the age in which it now lives and breathes. The film is drenched with a mix of Pantheist and Orthodox images and anguish, offering a remarkable “inside” account of the repressed Christian protagonist who is contrasted with the more liberated and “tempting” Pagans he meets, not to mention the “uncouth” and violent invading Tartars. But despite what sounds like the nationalist neuroses and repressions of a far-off culture and era, you won’t find a more aesthetically ravishing, and, in its unique way, uniquely experimental feature film. While my impulse in the face of much morally and metaphysically loaded writing around Tarkovsky’s work is often to pull away, and I certainly find some elements of his cinema troublingly didactic (especially following his defection to the West in the early 1980s), this director’s five Soviet films are amongst world cinema’s greatest edifices. Perhaps the freshest of his films because the least copied, Andrei Roublev gets better with each viewing.
The film’s reputation today is immense. Despite coming up against the officially sanctioned “reality” and politics of the era from which it was born, in its deepest veins – containing both troubled history and rich, reflexive “content” – this is challenging art cinema at its most wondrous. The product of a now defunct system and state, that Andrei Roublev came into existence at all is a distinctly secular, historically grounded but no less fantastic miracle.
- Vita T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994, p. 80.
- 1966 was indeed something of a high-water mark for world cinema: Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden), 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard, France), Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, Britain/Italy/USA), Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, Miklós Jancsó, Hungary), Sedmikrásky (Daisies, Vera Chytilová, Czechoslovakia), and even Erogotoshi-tachi yori: Jinruigaku nyûmon (The Pornographers, Shohei Imamura, Japan), all emerged in that year. Such films are frequently “self-reflexive” essays/meditations on the vexed issues surrounding the relationship between authorship or art and present-day modernity. In Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007, pp. 338-348, András Bálint Kovács tellingly devotes a chapter to Andrei Roublev, Persona and Blow Up as the key films of 1966.
- Johnson and Petrie, pp. 80-1. Their chapter on the film provides the most detailed account of Andrei Roublev’s production and reception, and tries to piece together a coherent version of events from the Kafkaesque jumble of information that is available (pp. 79-97).
- Tarkovsky often portrayed himself – in his writings and interviews – as an uncompromising artist who suffered at the hands of the Soviet censorship system. This is particularly true of parts of Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, Faber and Faber, London, 1989. Some biographical accounts of Tarkovsky also emphasise this narrative – one that Johnson and Petrie, but also Ian Christie, are careful to qualify or even problematise; pointing out how Tarkovsky self-consciously played this role in his writing, whereas many other testimonies from within the Soviet film industry of the time suggest that he was in fact “favoured” by the powers-that-be compared to countless other directors. To have made and had released five incredibly challenging, clearly not “on-message” films in the USSR during a largely repressive period was a great achievement. Christie’s contribution to this is in an excellent introductory essay to Maya Turovskaya’s book on the filmmaker, in which he details the many mismatched expectations, values and ongoing “problems” between Tarkovsky and his Western admirers upon the occasion of the director’s visit to London. See Christie, “Introduction: Tarkovsky in his Time”, Maya Turovskaya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry, ed. Ian Christie, trans. Natasha Ward, Faber and Faber, London, 1989.
- The film was first requested for the 1967 festival to screen as part of a series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. But, in what now seems an ominously literal response, the Soviet authorities informed the festival that the editing was not finished. See Johnson and Petrie, p. 81.
- This Cannes success and prominence angered the authorities, and the film was pulled from its planned role in the Moscow Film Festival of that year. The film’s commercial Paris opening was even put into doubt before its Western distributor asserted his commercial rights. Andrei Roublev’s success and attention in Paris and elsewhere further delayed its domestic release. See Johnson and Petrie, p. 81.
- While a 165-minute version has also circulated, it was an even shorter 145-minute cut that opened in Britain and the USA in 1973; the official 186-minute version was not widely seen with English subtitles until two decades later. The film’s first version was released on DVD in the USA in 1999. (Confounding debates over authorial intention, and considering Tarkovsky’s claim to prefer the shorter of the two authentic versions, the Criterion Collection calls their release “the definitive 205-minute director’s cut”.)
- Johnson and Petrie, p. 80. No doubt also invoking rank nationalism, the distinctly Marxist understanding of the term “historical” needs to be taken into account when interpreting this quote: the film was telling the wrong, because insufficiently materialist-analytical, kind of history. Meanwhile, Jim Hoberman neatly writes: “The film was too negative, too harsh, too experimental, too frightening, too filled with nudity, and too politically complicated to be released – especially on the eve of the Revolution’s 50th anniversary.” (“Andrei Rublev”, Criterion Collection Online Cinematheque: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/43.)
- Johnson and Petrie, p. 82.
- In my estimation the 205-minute version is more so, even though Johnson and Petrie claim much of the violence that was the source of complaints was actually left in the 186-minute cut – “the on-screen slitting of a man’s neck, a horse falling to its death, blindings and torture” (p. 80) – not to mention that our, thus far, morally-framed hero kills a man during the set-piece, Tartar battle.
- In the 205-minute version of the film we see the complete arcs of these sublime shots. In the “short” version we sometimes only see the first and last minute, the unique continuity of these quintessential “time-images” (to use Gilles Deleuze’s famous phrase) is curtailed.
Andrey Rublyov/Andrei Roublev (USSR 1966 205/186/165 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Scr: Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Konchalovsky Phot: Vadim Yusov Art Dir: Yevgeni Chernyaev Ed: Ludmila Feyganova Mus: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
Cast: Anatoli Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev, Irma Raush, Nikolay Burlyaev