Written by Robert Savage
When I was researching medieval films to review it was interesting to find that most of them were romantic or fantastical. Major medieval films like Robin Hood, Braveheart, and King Arthur all share similar characteristics. They have the tendency to portray the upper echelons of medieval society and the chivalrous nature of its heroes. It is strange that in popular culture medieval times are portrayed as barbaric, yet in popular films there is almost a romanticisation of the period. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Andrei Rublev’ is an antidote to these somewhat limited films. Andrei Rublev works as a medieval film because it is a panorama of Russian medieval society. It analyses jesters, monks, children, teenage businessmen, and mothers. Most importantly, it refuses to shy away from the less romantic elements of medieval times. Andrei Rublev is brilliant because it realistically paints how medieval people overcame hardships. The journey feels worthwhile because there is growth for Rublev, unlike characters in some medieval films that remain one dimensional.
The story focuses on the life of the Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev. His life is split into eight fragments, so his character is constantly on the move. This allows for a wide appreciation of Russian medieval society. Tarkovsky seeks to express how Orthodox Christianity came to define the Russian spirit. Rublev lived in the early fifteenth century, which was a tumultuous time for the Kievan Rus. At the start of the century, most of the area was under Mongol/Tartar rule. By the end of the century the Mongols/Tartars no longer held power. The film is about how an artist connects to the people they want to represent in a tumultuous period. Tarkovsky purports forgiveness and reconciliation as the key components of Orthodox Christianity. The film is about Rublev’s struggle to overcome medieval barbarity and the destructive impulses of mobs. It is about his difficulty in establishing his vision of the Orthodox Church, as many of his contemporaries seek to scare medieval Russians into Orthodox Christianity. Rublev tries to escape established notions of sinfulness to create art that appeals to the masses.
The medieval atmosphere of this film is really aided by Tarkovsky’s religious leanings. The director was a devout Orthodox Christian in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Tarkovsky’s faith gives him an edge over other directors because religion played such a major role in European medieval societies. His understanding of the faith allows the characters to act in a way that is more realistic to structures of society at the time. Rublev faces the issue of losing his faith because of the ruthless use of state power he encounters. It is easier for Tarkovsky to represent this because he may have gone through a similar crisis of faith in man. For sure, there is a parallel between the society he lived in under the Soviet Union where faith and “the people” were used for nefarious ends by those in power. Tarkovsky and his central character both face the problem of maintaining hopeful religious art in a society where people use each other for their own ends.
In a sense this is a history of the twentieth century as well as medieval Russia. There has been debate over how anti state and anti-Soviet Union this film is. Considering it was only released in a censored version in the Soviet Union, it was clearly a problem for the Soviet state. The film is not an obvious attack on the Soviet Union, but its theme of Orthodox Christianity defining Russian consciousness was not popular with the materialists that ruled the Soviet Union. There are several scenes that bare resemblance to what Tarkovsky would have seen in his period. An early scene shows a jester being arrested for insulting a boyar (a rank just below a prince). Much like officials in the Soviet Union, the boyars punish the jester under the pretext that he damages the peace of society. Later, the Grand Prince sends soldiers to attack artisans who have chosen to work for his brother. This use of state force to impede artistic freedom is another subtle attack on the Soviet leadership at the time.
Tarkovsky’s work reaches a deeper point about the curse of the Russian soul. At one-point Rublev says ‘Russia, dearest Russia, she bears everything, she will bear everything. How long will it continue?’. There is a sense that Russia is doomed because its people are godless and follow their most destructive passions. Rublev’s opposite Theopanes the Greek argues that Russia is doomed because its people are too ignorant. He argues that they rely on a greater state power to punish those they see as sinners. Andrei Rublev’s problem is attempting to overcome this stereotype of the Russian people. He must learn that people are not sinners for actions that go against the designated rules of his faith. His desire is to overcome the differences that have plagued Russian cohesion to create universal art. This mirrors Tarkovsky’s aims. Tarkovsky is aware of Russia’s shortfalls and overall human shortfalls. Like Rublev he attempts to use art to rejuvenate Russia spiritually.
Tarkovsky also tackles the way in which history is told. Tarkovsky is a director who generally expresses the importance of emotions and subjectivity in his work. The primacy of an individual’s emotions makes an accurate retelling of history almost impossible. In Andrei Rublev this is stressed using time jumps. There is no linear retelling of the life of Andrei Rublev. The viewer is forced to rely on the perspectives of the characters, which are small in the grand timescale. There is little about Rublev’s familial life or what he does in his spare time. Almost half the movie is taken up by other people imposing themselves on Rublev’s life. It is left to the viewer to decide what these fragments mean in totality. Tarkovsky’s argument is essentially that history can never be accurately defined. Everyone has their own story that is created from the information they have learned. After all, Tarkovsky did once say that ‘a book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.’
Despite my attempts, it is quite difficult to explain a Tarkovsky film. Tarkovsky’s style could be described as visual poetry, which makes it difficult to explain in a logical and linear way. This is what makes Tarkovsky’s films so immersive. He uses sounds from the natural elements and visual metaphors through his imagery to elicit emotion in the audience. Andrei Rublev is nowhere near a factual documentary on his life. However, Tarkovsky never intended for it to be a completely faithful picture of medieval Russia. What makes his movies feel real is his artistic choices. It still feels like a medieval film because of Tarkovsky’s timeless knowledge of the Eastern Orthodox faith. You can get lost in the story and imagine the events taking place in medieval times. This is probably helped by the feeling that anybody could die at any point, a key problem in the medieval world.
Be warned, this is a long film. Like all Tarkovsky films it goes at a slow pace, which will turn some people off. However, it is a very good film if you want to have a greater understanding of the medieval world. Most of the current medieval films are over the top and are often fantasy stories. This film helps to illustrate how ordinary people lived in the medieval period. It is well versed in its knowledge of the Orthodox Church which makes it a valuable source to explain how religion operated in medieval Russia. It is also an interesting take on the formation of the Russian national identity and what the Tsars would base their empire on in the coming centuries. It is worth watching as a piece of art, not just as a historical narrative.
Written by Robert Savage
Robert Savage is a history graduate from the University of Kent, living in the fine city of Norwich. Once described by a friend as a ‘speed obsessed freak who likes cheese’. He enjoys travel, motorsports, writing, and films.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.