What struck me most about Tarkovsky’sAndrei Rublevis the utter bareness of the world depicted in the film. We begin our journey from above, piggybacking onto a man flying over the vastness of Russia on a prototype of a hot air balloon. As he looks down onto the land, he sees people sprawled around like ants, moving seemingly without cause or purpose. From this height, the people and their earthly existence seem negligible and almost pest-like, as they scatter along the vastness of the earth. The contrast of the black and white cinematography emphasises their separation from the nature around them, causing them to appear as some sort of an alien other. Yet their presence is also inconsequential and transient – a short blip on this earth that will last long after they are gone.
The only thing that truly captures our eyes and our minds is the regal bulk of the cathedral, imposing in its visible density and the luminosity of its whiteness. Herein lies the paradox: this cathedral will remain long after the tiny human dots on the ground will disappear, yet it is this very same cathedral that is the unlikely product of these human dots and their collective hands and minds. These seemingly negligible particles of human existence create something that transcends them in every way imaginable; physically, historically, spatially, spiritually… In its essence, this work of art that is the cathedral, becomes the nexus of all that is transcendent in humanity – all that stands in opposition to bareness of their reality. Thus, art redeems man, no matter how minute he may be in the face of history.
This sense of transcendence through art is the crux of Andrei Rublev. The eponymous hero, seeks to elevate himself spiritually above the mundane and increasingly hostile world of violence, pettiness, stupidity, cruelty and envy. His art is not just his skills – although people like Keril may only see and envy it as such – but his whole sense of being. It is a spiritual exercise, and Andrei assumes an almost ascetic attitude to it – only painting on an empty stomach and when he is fully committed to his subject matter. For Andrei, art is also a way of processing the world around him, both in a negative and a positive way – for he simultaneously gains pleasure and reassurance from the natural world and is appalled by its complexity and cruelty. Thus, painting for Andrei is not merely a physical expression of skill, but a means to capture the multifaceted existence that surrounds him. This attitude puts him at odds with the other painters such as his own assistant, who is merely concerned with the technical aspect of his craft, an attitude which amazes and disappoints Andrei, who laments “Everything is so simple for you”.
Throughout the film Andrei has to understands and come to terms with his tempestuous environment, adapting his art and his own spirituality. It is a world of medieval Russia; a world in flux. It not only suffers from the cruelty and violence of the Tartars, but from atrocities and petty savagery of its own people. Andrei tries desperately to maintain a love for the world and its people, questioning his teacher “How can you paint while thinking that man is inherently stupid?”. He experiences love and mercy from unlikely place, such as when he is freed by a pagan woman who tells him “If I don’t’ have love, I have nothing”. Along with his painting, these incidents reassure Andrei that this world is worth inhabiting and glorifying through art. This joy culminates in his recital of Paul’s address to the Corinthians (Love is patient…etc.) to a little girl in an unfinished cathedral, a magical scene, the purity and luminosity of which is reflected in the mise-en-sène of the cathedrals white walls.
Despite these flashes of joy and life affirment, Andrei is haunted by pervasive violence and human barbarity. From the very beginning of film, Andrei witnesses various unpleasant incidents such as the punishment and arrest of a jester, Kiril’s rebellion and slander of the church, the hunting and crucifixion of the pagans, and the sack of Vladimir by the Tartars. Eventually, this leads him to give up his art and assume a vow of silence after he murders a Tartar solider who nearly assaults a dumb girl. Just as the unfinished cathedral reflect his joy, its white walls serve as the canvas for his rage and despair at the slaughter of fellow artisans by a jealous duke, as he splashed red paint on their brilliance, inadvertently creating a gaping wound. This excess of violence and his own inadvertent participation in it, cause Andrei to have a crisis of faith. Not only does he have to answer the question “How can you worship God if cruelty is done in his name?”, but he also has to figure out the place of art in such a tainted world.
Andrei regains his belief in humanity and the transcendence of art when he meets Boriska, a young peasant boy who inadvertently steps into his dead bell-making-father’s shoes and displays inherent talent in his craft. Boriska seems to be the complete opposite to Andrei; rough and grounded, he is the earth and fire to Andrei’s water and air. Indeed, Boriska comes into his own when he discovers the right clay for the bell by skidding in some mud, displaying his joy by caressing the earth. Furthermore, he is far from a solitary worker, commanding an army of people who have to obey his almost authoritarian spirit. In contrast, we never really see Andrei at work, apart from one glimpse of his solitary correction of a small icon. Nevertheless, they both possess an inherent talent for their respective craft, working by instinct and with their whole being; and it is when he encounters Boriska that Andrei is able to accept Kiril’s plea – “Don’t reject your God given gift”.
This expression of transcendent creativity from another person – and its seemingly divine origin – reassures Andrei that art and life are worth pursuing. Boriska and Anderi share an immediate connection, as Boriska collapses in Andrei’s arms in a Pieta-like manner and confesses that his father has never given him the secret of bell making. This reminds Andrei of his own mentor and their technical and spiritual partnership, prompting him to recognise that people with such creative gifts ought to stick and work together in order to maintain this spirit of artistic transcendence. Most importantly, Andrei recognises that divine – or worldly – glory does not merely come from positive experiences, but is able to survive or even originate from the darkest moments of human existence such as death and pain. Boriska’s life is saved due to his art, for without his skill, he would have been left in the plague-ridden village where he came from. In another striking moment, Andrei’s pain – expressed by the splashing of paint on the walls – causes the “holy fool” Durochka to burst into tears as she is able to understand his emotion through the expressionism of his art.
Thus, Andrei comes to the conclusion that is suffering as well as goodness that allows him to paint, for it is only through encompassing the totality of human existence, that man and artist are able to create great and transcendent art. This art – like the cathedral at the beginning of the film – will survive through the centuries and different generations, inspiring others to seek beauty and goodness in their life. The epilogue of the film confronts us with Andrei’s work, finally shown to us in full colour. The details spidering across the screen demonstrate his perception and delicacy, while the switch to colour from black and white reflects the balance of his vision. Even in a world permeated with violence, art and beauty is able to survive, all because of people like Andrei and Boriska, and it is through their work that we are able to understand how it is to be fallibly, but gloriously, human.