Thirty years after his death, Andrei Tarkovsky remains a cinematic visionary on a universal scale. His films rightly deserve be placed in the pantheon alongside those of other great auteurs, speaking to an audience beyond the confines of his own country. Despite these accolades, the limitations imposed upon his artistic spirit weighed heavily, and yielded something greater than might otherwise have been produced in a democratic country. His films are about his longing for Mother Russia, never more apparent than in his final, exiled phase of apocalyptic melancholy in Nostalghia, (Italy, 1983) and The Sacrifice (Sweden, 1986). His search for a mystical Christianity in the fight against materialism was, metaphorically, perfected on a profound state in The Zone of Stalker (1979). However, despite having already directed several short student films, including The Steamroller and the Violin (1961), it was his first two, black and white feature films, Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966), that catapulted him to the first rank of filmmakers.
In Ivan’s Childhood, Ivan, whose immediate family were killed by Nazis, becomes a scout for a Russian partisan regiment. Determined to be of service on the frontline, despite the protestations of many of his seniors, Ivan is sent on a final mission as a sniper. This highlights the terrible fatality that children of Ivan’s age and height suffered during the combat, used by the Army due to their ability to slip unnoticed through enemy lines.
The film ends tragically with Ivan found hanging by a wire. The sickening swing of his dangling body leaves a bitter aftertaste, questioning the cost of victory and street celebrations that precede it. Ivan’s hanging is juxtaposed with bleak tones of grenades lighting up the sky like fireworks and the putrid glimmer of the lakes as the boats stream by two dead soldiers, magnified by a haunting score.
Combined with its relentless, introspective psychological turmoil is a unique poetic approach, which carries the film to another level above and beyond the subject, and is perhaps equalled only by Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) as a fully realized hallucination of the horrors of war. It is also the first realisation of Tarkovsky’s elevated aesthetic, which must have heightened the impact of the first audiences. Indeed, it would go onto win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
This is made all the more heart-rending by its striking juxtaposition of poignant reveries: happier times of Ivan’s childhood with his mother and sister, before they were murdered, on the beach and in an apple cart during the rain. The eating of apples in ample supply quickly changes to rationed soup and bread on a famished stomach. This juxtaposition is all the more plausible as a protest against the barbaric treatment of civilians and children alike, and also, a key theme of Tarkovsky’s films, the loss of spiritual innocence.
The final shots are of a dream that creates further uncertainty as to the temporal link of the narrative, let alone the dreamer. The use of nature – sunlit birch trees in the dreams and desolate swamps in reality – also significantly enhance an appreciation of the film. Such glistening pastoral beauty, in this context, is emblematic of a mystical attraction to the countryside whose tether has been broken during conflict and can only be tied again in subconscious memories.
Iconic passages of time, by way of chronology and flashback sequences, add an extraordinary texture to the elements, and perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in Andrei Rublev. Much like his later, non-linear classic Mirror (1974), it is a biography of the protagonist as much as it is of Russian history. It was also Tarkovsky’s greatest feature film as a storyteller, offering a personal vision of poetic logic that only a director-artist could conjure up.
Andrei Rublev, purely as a chronicle, is without parallel in the cinema. Loosely based on the life and times of the great Icon painter, it is more like a triptych about the forging of a nation. Set in the time of great bloodshed and political upheaval, combining the raids of the Tartars and the death of the Slavs at the hands of soldiers, the film is shown from Andrei’s point of view, an observation of events rather than the life of the artist in relation to his people.
There is one great scene which resonates in the mind while the rest of the film merely lingers in comparison, not least by the influence of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s painting The Procession to Calvary. Like Breughel’s re-imagining of the crucifixion in a Flemish context, Tarkovsky recreates the procession against an unyielding winter landscape. The scene is set apart from the others; the followers of a medieval Russian Christ once again feel pity and anger for his parting, “of his own free will” according to the narrator.
Whilst worldly ambition is destroying the habitation around them, they retained the strength to endure in spite of all their suffering: “The Russian man suffers more and more misfortunes. The Tartars raid him thrice a season, then comes a famine or a plague. But he keeps working and working, bearing his cross with humility. Never despairing but enduring it silently. And only praying to God to give him enough strength to endure”. The Russian Orthodox Faith, “of one blood and one land”, grew out of these conditions. Five hundred years later, those of Orthodox Faith, in an atheist State, again suffered much oppression and bloodshed for practising their beliefs. The message of endurance remains the same.
Andrei Rublev undertakes a vow of silence amidst all this vulgar oppression inflicted on his land. He finally breaks his vow and takes up painting again after witnessing a young boy sacrifices his very livelihood in order to help construct and cast a bell. Such selflessness towards the direction of divine creativity was to Andrei like a sign from God to continue the sanctified path of virtue. Andrei the director would continue to follow that same path until his untimely death in 1986, aged 54.
© 2017 AGP