My purpose is to make films that will help people live, even if they sometimes cause unhappiness. -Andrei Tarkovsky
One of the many great joys of cinema is experiencing a particularly great film for the first time. Roger Ebert said No good movie is depressing, and I always abided by this motto. I ve come to embrace the bleakest of films, from Midnight Cowboy to Requiem for a Dream for the candor and human insights they carried.
There was always an exception to the rule. The films of the late great Russian maverick Andrei Tarkovsky were among those I constantly approached with skepticism and apprehension. For the casual viewer, each of the seven masterpieces he created over 25 years contained little elements of tangible distress or modern form of morbidity à la Von Trier, Larry Clark or Gaspar Noé. Yet, in essence, each one of those films represented a spiritual artistic zone where the viewers beliefs and preconceptions are scrutinized, and – more often than not – ultimately shattered.
As he made clear in his astute book Sculpting with Time, film is art, not entertainment. He states that filmgoers go to the movies to experience time and the job of a filmmaker is to sculpt time in the form of images, streams of emotions and moral assessments. He was prepared to implement extreme demands, both on himself and on the audiences.
His slow pace, long shots and lack of concrete plotlines often rendered his films difficult and challenging. He demolished conventional moviemaking methods and forced the audience to conjure their own subjective interpretations from the blocks of imagery and sounds, movements and rhythm as well as the correlation between time and space that constituted his fragmented narrative.
Andrey Rublyov, his second feature, is considered by Russian critics the most historically and artistically significant Russian film in history; a claim few would label as a farfetched statement.
The 1969 film, initially entitled The Passion of Andrey Rublyov, is loosely based on the life of the greatest Russian medieval painter of icons and frescoes. Despite his vast reputation, little is known about Rublyov, and he remains, generally, an enigmatic historical figure.
The film opens with a man climbing aboard a primitive air-balloon and starts flying. The camera changes gear to assume his point of view, allowing us to see what he sees from the top. The camera swiftly glides over a group of rivers intercepted by deserted meadows, a flock of strayed lambs and a bunch of spectators anticipating the inevitable crash of the jester. As the balloon finally hits the grounds, Tarkovsky cuts to a picture of a horse rising gracefully, preparing to move on.
This sense of dream-like surrealism, symbols and juxtapositions will pervade throughout the 205-minutes of the film, interjecting harrowing realism with majestic, otherworldly fantasy.
Tarkovsky, through seven chapters, traces the quest of the monk Rublyov to find meaning, God and inspiration in a 15th century heathen Russia. Kirill, another monk sent to assist in painting a cathedral under renovations, is envious of Rublyov s talent but recognizes the hollowness of his first paintings; their lack of zeal or faith.
On their way to Moscow, Rublyov and company are faced with a series of temptations. He dwells in a small village on St. John s Eve, watching a pagan ceremony that entails dissipation, fornication, dancing and other forms of sensual pleasures. When he s lured by a sultry naked woman, he runs away, refusing to confront or conquer his desires.
As he watches the villagers prosecuted for refusing to believe in one God, doubt strikes his heart again. His faith is put on the line another time when a Tartar raid strikes the city and Rublyov finds himself driven to murder a man for attempting to rape a young mute Russian woman. To repent his crime, Rublyov vows not to speak or paint again while he observes the young son of a master bell-maker trying to cast a massive bell commissioned by a Prince.
Tarkovsky provides his viewers with little details, coercing them to work their way in his disjointed narrative. Rublyov, the titular character, spends the larger part of the film at the periphery, observing the inexplicable madness surrounding him while occasionally reflecting on the passion of the Christ and humanity.
Andrey Rublyov isn t a historical bioepic; it s an atheistic, almost religious journey that allows us to experience medieval Russia from his viewpoint, to realize the difficulty of creating artistic harmony and peace from chaos and detachment.
The film s depiction of the conflict between the artist and totalitarian political structure, along with religious themes and nudity, compelled the repressive Russian authorities to shelve it for five years before it broke into the international film scene via Cannes.
More so than anything else, Andrey Rublyov is a film about the relation between art and faith; how the power of both transcends any cruelty, abhorrence or human injustice.
It s also about the goodness of the others; how God s divine salvation is found in the hearts of one another. In one of the most haunting and poignant scenes of the film where the crucifixion is recreated, Rublyov explains that ignorance and evil of man are always defeated by glimpses of love.
Whenever you re exhausted and despairing and you meet some human eyes, it works, he says, and ultimately, it s in the strength, faith and eyes of those average humans where Rublyov attains his final transcendence.
Andrey Rublyov is screening next Sunday at the The American University in Cairo s Jameel Auditorium as a part of Mortal Divinity: Transcendence in Film series. For more information, please call (02) 2797 6373.