IN THE GRAND GEOMETRY of film, the trajectory that begins with Stanley Kubrick and continues through Werner Herzog will eventually, somewhere further along, end in Andrei Tarkovsky. That the latter is not mentioned in the same breath as the former two (not that Herzog really receives his due, either) is a grave disappointment, since the arc plotted by these three directors encompasses virtually everything that film can describe of ‘the human condition.’ They are equally expressive in contemporary drama, science-fiction, historical period pieces, horror, war films, etc., and seem utterly dismissive of the prescriptions usually associated with so-called ‘genre pictures’. For them, place is important—habitually shooting on-location, however inconvenient—but always subordinate to people.
What removes Tarkovksy so distinctly from the others is his expression of that second variable: people. Kubrick and Herzog are fond of big personalities—Aguirre, Alex De Large, Nosferatu, Jack Torrance—who act as brilliant prisms, refracting precise beams of light and exploring them exhaustively, explicitly. Tarkovsky operates instead with an entire wheel of colors, and only by absorbing the entire palate can we make out the picture he endeavors to paint. Case in point, ‘Andrei Rublev’. Biopics rarely focus on the late Middle Ages. Perhaps because it is a less romantically inviting era than the Renaissance and features fewer dramatic titans than the earlier epochs of William Wallace, Joan of Arc, etc. But this relatively open canvas is perfect for Tarkovsky and ‘Andrei Rublev’, whose eponymous character can hardly be described as a strong central figure. Indeed, this film is an epic without a hero—a saga with a halfhearted narrator. In several of the film’s chapters Rublev is merely an observer or a force to be acted upon rather than vice versa. Yet he is neither cipher nor an everyman. The historical Rublev is a recognized master of Christian art and his celebrity is the cause of some envy and conflict in the film as well. Rublev is observational, though, like Tarkovsky—the two move together through scenes, neither passive nor too presumptuous. Patient and still purposeful. Despite its multi-year span, at 3+ hours ‘Andrei Rublev’ is virtually filmmaking in real time, sprawling across Russian landscapes, tracking remote churches, wintry hovels, pagan woodland revelry, and vengeful conquest with an unflinching eye. For each is equal: no portrait of life, or profession of faith in the hereafter, is believable without perspective.
Tarkovsky has said that art emerges only from an imperfect world, and that it does so to bring beauty, purpose, or some positive focus to an otherwise maculate, meandering, and simply extant state of being. ‘Andrei Rublev’ initially does not seem to take a positive view on the topic, considering the misery its many characters endure, but we ultimately are left with a great sense of possibility and portent. No solutions are presented and no guarantees of salvation or satisfaction are made, despite Tarkovsky’s very strong personal convictions. But at the film’s end, when Rublev kneels in a sodden expanse of trodden earth to embrace a young bellmaker—sobbing for fear in his moment of triumph—he speaks for the first time in years and his words of reassurance ring true.