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ANDREI RUBLEV

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anatoly Solonitsin, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Sergeyev, Nikolai Burlaev
Director:  Andrei Tarkovsky
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  205 Minutes
Release Date:  February 2, 1999

“Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”  - Ingmar Bergman

Film ****

Some great films defy traditional cinematic narrative, but few challenge it as strongly as Andrei Tarkovsky's amazing movie Andrei Rublev.  It is a film about a historical figure, an icon painter to be exact, but it's no biopic.  In fact, the title character isn't even in some of the picture's episodes; and in more than a few, he is delegated to the role of bystander and observer.

What was Tarkovsky trying to accomplish?  Well, once it's established that Rublev's life and work is not really the string that holds the film together, one must look elsewhere for structure and foundation.  The episodes of the movie are not related by tangibles, but rather, images and ideals that propel and comprise the intricacies of this Medieval story.   The opening segment, for example, is not about Rublev, but about some unnamed balloonist who steps out into a ramshackle hot air balloon and takes himself and the viewing audience on a glorious flight before crashing down.  Perhaps the underlying theme is the bravery of certain individuals who risk everything for that fleeting moment of glory.  Or, perhaps the tragedy that many such conquests crash and burn.  Maybe both.

Visually, Tarkovsky immediately establishes a style that was fresh and lucid.  This movie is surreal and contemplative, slow moving but exacting, and plays out so much like a dream that it's possible to come out of a single viewing affected, but without absolute certainty of what just played out on screen.

Tarkovsky's world is so beautiful that the moments of violence truly startle…that, or his world is so violent that the moments of beauty are what startles…I'm not sure which.  This is no romanticized Medieval era, in other words.  There are no knights and ladies fair in this period of Russian history…only feudal wars, fear, religious strife and more.  This is the world of Andrei Rublev (Solonitsin), a monk who became a widely recognized artist within the Catholic church.

If the film is not about him, as it clearly isn't, one must consider that the film reflects him instead.   If history is not even sure exactly when or where the man was born, a factual picture hardly seemed possible.  Instead, the picture floats somewhat dreamily through the time and setting of his life, and plays out like a giant psychological profile of sorts.  In other words, if we don't get to know the man in conventional ways, we look at his world through his eyes, and come up with a feel for him that may be subjective, but emotionally viable.

There are scenes of almost pure fantasy, as when Rublev stumbles onto a Pagan ceremony, where candles float out into the river and unclothed women move trance-like through the natural setting.  These are sometimes followed by scenes of horror.  A warning:  some of the depictions of torture are very unsettling.  There are scenes of denouncement, and scenes of reconciliation.  All of these play out in an almost structure-free way; time and space are not rigid in Andrei Rublev any more than historical accuracy is.

The film celebrates the artistic spirit, if not the artist himself.  The people in Rublev's life help shape his destiny, from the tutelage of Theophanes the Greek (Sergeyev) to the untalented and jealous Kirill (Lapikov) who later convinces the weary and frustrated artist that it would be a sin not to use the gift God has given him.  One concedes that the artist is affected by the world around him, and that affection leads to what he creates, which often stands for many generations after he has departed.

The final segment, involving an orphaned boy granted the task of casting a bell for the prince, is perhaps the film's greatest one.  Young Boriska (Burlyaev) embodies both the arrogance of a seasoned taskmaster, and in quieter moments, the hesitation and fear of a child.  His final scene with Rublev is an emotional and memorable one, and one that ends the picture on a fantastic note of optimism, before the black and white photography gives way to an explosion of color and a welcome look at some of Rublev's artwork.

Of course, long before the ending, one will appreciate how much conventional narrative has been totally broken down and reworked.  This picture leaves you with a lot to think about; many transient images to piece together, allegories to consider and ideas to sift through.  But not until after coming down from the experience of watching a purely cinematic offering.  Andrei Rublev is a remarkable film that not only pushes the boundaries of its art form, it obliterates and redefines them.

Video ***

This is a quality widescreen offering from Criterion.  The contrast level is a little more contracted than normal; i.e. there are no truly deep blacks or bright whites, but everything in between plays with clarity and definition, and the gray tones add to the mystique of the picture.  There are a few print problems here and there, but nothing distracting and just barely noteworthy.  Despite the running time, there is no evidence of undue grain, break-up, shimmer or other artifacts of compression (don't you just love dual layered discs?).  This version represents the return of the movie to its original running time, so the visual quality overall can be considered highly satisfying…a very good effort.

Audio **

As with most single channel audio tracks, this mix is good enough, but unremarkable.  The soundtrack shows its age during some quieter moments with a little hiss, but its very slight and doesn't distort the dialogue or the music. 

Features **1/2

The disc contains an audio essay by Harvard film professor Vlada Petric, made easily accessible by a chapter menu.  He discusses Tarkovsky's technique with a handful of specific scenes as visual references; very informative.  There is a collection of interviews with Tarkovsky bookended by video clips of Petric, and a timeline of Russian historical events and how Andrei Rublev's life and work played out in it.

Summary:

Andrei Rublev may not appeal to all tastes with its hefty running time and an allegorical structure replacing traditional narrative, but as groundbreaking and strangely beautiful as it is, it's one you don't want to dismiss until you've at least given it a chance.  Restored to its proper running time and in full widescreen glory, this is another offering from Criterion that will be a joy to cinema lovers everywhere.