The newly refurbished Renoir screen, within the Renoir cinema (as I shall continue to call it), is a fitting place to watch Tarkovsky’s epic. Obviously words like masterpiece can and should be applied to this spectacular piece of filmmaking. It might be that there is little to add. It feels as though Tarkovsky’s reputation, justifiably, continues to grow. Each new generation of auteur filmmakers acknowledges their debt to the Russian, none more so than Inarritu in The Revenant. Someone put together a striking comparative video of that film with images from Tarkovsky’s, claiming the Mexican was stealing from Tarkovsky, but, as Brecht pointed out, all writers are thieves.
Watching this film on the big screen, for the first time, allowed many of the set piece scenes, including in particular the battle scenes, to be appreciated in all their glory. Whilst on one level a poet of the natural world, Tarkovsky was also a master composer of the grand set piece, showing a flair which Hollywood can only envy. The screen is filled with detail, like a Breughel painting, the camera lingering on the scene for long enough for its glorious complexity to be assimilated on a large screen; a TV or a computer cannot do justice to these moments.
There’s so much mud in the film. The last scene is Rublev in the mud with the child bell-maker. Having visited the area around Vladimir, including Suzdal, there’s nothing exaggerated about any of this. Even in the middle of Summer, when I visited, the mud was wonderfully pervasive. The film takes place in the 15th c, but it’s no better now. Which also suggests the reason for all this mud. There’s something elemental about it, something overwhelmingly Russian. The mud is actual and metaphorical. Nothing is easy in Russia, everything is muddied, which might have something to do with a climate which veers from one extreme to the other. Andrei Rublev is a film about Russia, this elemental, unchanging Russia, the same now as it was under Stalin or the Peter the Great. The mud is a constant which glues this all together, both within history and within the film.
The film famously opens with a balloon trip, offering a sky-to-earth perspective. Thereafter the film continues to play with perspective and angle. The camera is employed to encourage a sense of viewer disorientation. Tarkovsky was not the only Soviet director to do this, and it’s a methodology which has since been pushed further. (Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba immediately springs to mind.) The question is why this technique is adopted. The man in the balloon is not central to the narrative of the film. Who is he? (The film never clarifies this, nor does a cursory internet enquiry, beyond telling us his name is Yefim). What we can say about him is that he appears to be an ordinary, anonymous individual. As such, he’s the reflective image of the spectator. It’s a bold move to open the film highlighting a character who has, as they now like to say, no agency within the story. Perhaps this is Tarkovsky’s nod to us, his audience. We are about to embark on a balloon ride; to soar, to lose ourselves in the clouds, to get caught up in the exhilaration of the experience. At the end, we will come crashing back down to earth (like Yefim) with a hard landing, as discordant, colourful images fill what has been a black and white frame. For a brief while, the camera’s perspective offers the common man another vista. You could make an argument to say that in so doing, Tarkovsky is towing the blockbuster line (what is Andrei Rublev if it’s not a blockbuster?). You could also make an argument that in Soviet Russia, as in the hegemonised world of global capital, the need to dream, to look at the world from an altered perspective, is paramount. Art is one of the few mechanisms available to us to do this, to step back and see the world afresh. It was ever thus, the film’s protoganism appears to imply, from 15th c Russia to the present day and beforehand too. Tarkovsky’s film is a remarkable proto 3-D portrayal of a 2-D artist.