From the beginning of cinema, people used films to espouse beliefs. Though the Russian Constructivist movement generally receives credit for promoting the idea that cinema could be used for a purpose rather than simply entertainment, directors like D.W. Griffith (with the racist imagery of Birth of a Nation followed by the inclusive Intolerance) and Charles Chaplin (with shorts like The Immigrant) had used their films to promote their ideologies before Eisenstein ever picked up a camera. Artistic propaganda goes back to the stage itself, with Shakespeare's plays in particular coming about as close to anti-royalty could in the age of patronage. But of all the opinions, emotions and philosophies espoused on the stage and screen, none is so hard to capture than faith. It makes sense; after all, anyone can talk about a belief, but what about belief itself?
It's something that's eluded the religious community greatly in their ongoing filmic endeavors. Films like Fireproof, C Me Dance and some new film on the horizon about high schoolers arguing over abortion in moot court for no reason all attempt to capture the power of faith and religious values in an increasingly secular world, but they all fail primarily because the protagonist never really has to face anything truly horrific and faith-challenging. The films that do examine faith in the face of amoral horror (The Last Temptation of Christ, for example) are dismissed by the Christian community as sacrilegious and sinful.
I wonder, then, what the consensus is on Andrei Tarkovsky's opus Andrei Rublev. Arts and Faith's list of the 100 Most Spiritually Significant films ranks it an impressive 10th, but that does not necessarily reflect the views of the community at large. Frankly, anyone who sits down with the 3-1/2 hour epic has their work cut out for them: episodic in nature, it loosely follows the life of icon painter Andrei Rublev, who lived from around 1370-1430 and about whom little is known.
That biographical uncertainty grants Tarkovsky great freedom: Andrei Rublev is not simply the story of the most celebrated medieval Russian icon painter (man, that's a lot of qualifiers); it is a haunting meditation on the nature of faith and art in a cruel world. Tarkovsky, who grew up under Stalin's nightmarish reign, knew full well the brutality of man and how little we've come since the so-called Dark Ages, and he fills the movie with terrible images of torture, murder, pillage and destitution.
Through this world wanders Rublev, a monk who paints icons along with two of his colleagues, Danil and Kirill. Andrei is the finest of the three, using his meticulous observations to craft beautiful, humanistic work; Danil, like Andrei, is withdrawn, but more worn down and disillusioned with the world; and Kirill serves as Andrei's foil, lacking talent but desperately seeking acclaim. He's intelligent enough to impress Theophanes, a renowned artist, but when the Greek sends for Andrei and not Kirill, the wrathful monk quits the monastery in a rage.
Kirill drifts in and out of the story, as does Danil. Clearly the focus is on Andrei, who begins to suffer an artistic crisis when the world around him becomes so terrible that he's afraid he can no longer paint peacefully and instead must reflect troubled times. Indeed, the cruelty of this barbaric world is so ingrained that Tarkovsky calls attention to the terrible ennui of it all. When royal soldiers gouge out the eyes of the artisans who built the prince's palace (so that they might never again create something so beautiful), they do so with indifference and do not react to their victims' terrible screams. A jester specializing in obscene social commentary is apprehended by guards and knocked out against a tree by a soldier who looks perfectly contented with his line of work.
Elsewhere, Tarkovsky lets his camera linger over images of beaten dogs; rotting, half-eaten animal carcasses; and a horrifying raid led by the aforementioned prince's brother. Tarkovsky's camera style has always had an unsettling quality to it, lingering over seemingly innocuous objects until they became nearly unbearable, but the imagery here is certainly his darkest. As Andrei explores the world around him, these gastly sights engender a crisis of faith reflected by his increasing self-doubt. When he inadvertently kills a soldier attempting to rape a young woman, he is so crushed that neither paints nor even speaks for 16 years.
Yet just as his faith died with his art, so does his creativity return when a simple act rekindles his belief. The son of a dead bellmaker must finish his father's project despite knowing next to nothing about the craft. But he has faith (and a good bit of luck), and casts the bell perfectly. The lad's success shows Andrei that an artist can make something beautiful in this world; he needs only the confidence not to be influenced by evil.
Despite the immense length, this is easily the most accessible of the three Tarkovsky films I've seen, and also the most rewarding. Like any genuinely rewarding spritual film, the focus is not on religious faith but faith itself. Andrei Rublev is as much a medieval coming-of-age tale as it is an argument for goodness in the face of great evil (be it the feudal rule of petty kings or the viciousness of totalitarian dictators). The arc of Rublev's creativity reminds me how so many faith-based films fail: at the start, when Rublev and the other two monks wander with little impediment and stay at the monastery, Andrei thinks his work triumphs over evil, but he has yet to become truly immersed in it. Only when he sees the world in all its violence and lust and greed does his art suffer.
That's the problem with religious films: they never make it out of the monastery, so to speak. Sure, something may go wrong there (such as Kirill's tirade), but they've still walled themselves off from the realities of the world. The film ends with a montage of Rublev's work, the only portion of the film in color. As the beautiful images flash on the screen, it's impossible not to substitute the Andrei in front of the camera with the one behind it: Tarkovsky lived through horrors so unimaginable that we still don't speak of Stalin's reign, at least not with the horrific clarity of the Holocaust, which took far fewer lives. His work was constantly censored, even buried either by those who didn't understand his style or understood it enough to know that the director was subtly attacking them.
Nonetheless, he continued to work, making ever bolder statements with his films and increasing his finesse with the camera. That is not to say, however, that his cinematography here was in any way lacking; the bell-raising sequence is one of the all-time great moments of cinema, a technical triumph that conveys both skill and emotion deftly. I'm merely saying that Tarkovsky never gave up and, like Rublev, he left behind some of the greatest pieces of art of this or any other period. If the term "masterpiece" cannot be applied to this film, I know not what it could possibly describe.