Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Andrei Rublev (1966)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #26 (tied with Rashomon)

The biopic is a cinematic genre staple, and there are plenty of good reasons for this. Telling the life story of an important person brings in curious audiences hoping for a glimpse of the person behind the legend, and actors often relish the opportunity embody a well-known figure (that such performances often win prestigious awards is also a likely incentive). Yet despite having been among the first films ever produced, biopics have been structured roughly the same way every time. Most follow a "greatest hits" format, tracing the person's life from birth to death, highlighting the major events in their lives and typically offering a pop-psychology explanation for how they became who they were.

The problem with this approach is that it often simplifies the person's life, boiling them down to a few moments that only demonstrate their impact on history by confirming what audiences already know. An example of this is Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004), which, despite strong performances from Jamie Foxx, Regina King, and Kerry Washington, only reaffirms what audiences already know about R&B singer Ray Charles.

Andrei Rublev, director Andrei Tarkovsky's passion project, is loosely based on the life of Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a religious icon painter in medieval Russia. But rather than beginning at Rublev's birth and charting his entire life, Tarkovsky chooses to focus solely on a roughly ten year period, starting in 1400 with Rublev leaving a monestary with his fellow monks and artists Daniil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov). The three wander the Russian countryside, as the film is divided into various episodes ranging from Rublev's tutelage under Theophanos the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev) to the savage raid of a town by a band of Tatars. Through it all, Rublev grows both as an artist and as a believer, the tragedies only strengthening his craft and his faith.

The operative term in the film's plot description is "loosely based." Tarkovsky did frame his film with events from the real Rublev's life, but his ultimate goal was not fidelity to his biography. Instead, Tarkovsky sought to make a film that spoke to Russia's religious history, directly flying in the face of the Soviet Union's official atheist stance. It's this that makes the film unique among biopics: it's less about the person's life than using them as a symbol of current social malaise.

More after the jump.

Tarkovsky begins his reconfiguration of Rublev's life by having each of the three monks in his group represent a different kind of artist. Rublev is empathetic and observant, aspiring to create art that provokes awe and inspiration. Daniil, on the other hand, is withdrawn, proving himself to not necessarily be creative as much as self-realizing. Kirill, then, is hot-headed and jealous, lacking talent but not ambition. Though the three men are all different personality types, they all have their hopes of achieving recognition and artistry in similar fashion. Yet of all these men, it's Rublev who finds prominence, because he remains true to his faith, thus embodying the importance of Christianity to Russian heritage.

As the film progresses, each "chapter" (there are eight total, plus a prologue and epilogue) functions as a parable of Russian history. In one instance, the three men come upon a jester who makes a mockery of religion and government, only to be arrested and knocked unconscious by soldiers. In another, Rublev comes across a pagan ceremony, is captured and tied up in a mock crucifixion pose, and is rescued by a woman who explains that her people are persecuted for their beliefs. Yet another episode, perhaps the most famous sequence of the film, details the invasion of the village of Vladimir by Tatar forces (aided by the jealous brother of a prince), leading to extensive death, rape, and destruction. The Tatars take special care to destroy Rublev's works in the village's main cathedral, eliminating his art through violence.

There's more to these stories than just Tarkovsky's stated intent of celebrating Russia's Christian history, however. Each parable - as well as Rublev's life on a whole - is, in essence, about the oppression of free speech. The jester's mockery is quickly suppressed by the soldiers, while Rublev's work is destroyed by the Tatars during their raid. The question of the purpose of art is repeatedly brought up, with Rublev contending that his art is important because of what it represents.

Tarkovsky perhaps best illustrates this point in the film's prologue and epilogue. The prologue is completely disconnected from the rest of the film, as a man attempts to fly in a primitive hot air balloon. As he prepares for takeoff, an angry mob swarms him, making every effort to destroy the balloon and prevent his takeoff. The man succeeds, marveling at being in flight, only to come crashing down after a few moments. The message here is clear: daring to deviate from the norm will bring ire from the ignorant mobs, and will likely end in self-destruction, an allegory for life as an artist under the Soviet regime.

Similarly, the epilogue makes a bold statement without saying a single word. The film ends with close-ups of Rublev's most famous icons, now aged by time but still vibrant. However, where the entire film up until this point had been filmed in black-and-white, the epilogue is filmed in color. The purpose of this effect is subtle but powerful: after watching Rublev's life, the audience is now asked to reflect on his work. The juxtaposition connects the artist with his art, but does so in a way that also separates them. The color icons become Rublev's final word, an artistic expression that cannot be censored (that the Central Committee of the Communist Party would render this epilogue in black-and-white when the film was shown on Soviet television is a particularly brilliant bit of irony).

Throughout his career, Tarkovsky was never shy about getting confrontational with Russia's top film departments, Goskino and Mosfilm. Yet Andrei Rublev was only the director's second film, and thus comes across as even more bold in its artistic daring. His film makes a compelling case for the importance of artistic expression, utilizing the conventional genre of the biopic and turning it into an unconventional work of art.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Contempt (1963)

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