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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Creating the Impossible (on Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev)

Foma shot with an arrow in "The Raid"

Boriska treasuring his bell

Andrei Rublev comforting the bellcaster

One of Rublev's great icons

Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (screenplay), Andrei Tarkovsky (director) Andrei Rublev / 1966 / I saw the film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on January 30, 2010

Like the iconic images of the artist upon which this movie focuses, Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is less a story or even a series of stories than it is a panorama of stopped moments in time. Like the great films of director Sergei Parajanov, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors two years earlier Sayat Nova of 1968, Andrei Rublev is less a film about time than it is a series of emblematic images, scenes that in their slow resolution of beauty and horror reveal a passionate and transformative experience that has little do with story or plot. And in that sense, nearly all of Tarkovsky's works from this film forward tell themselves in formal cinematic patterns instead of narrative space.

Tarkovsky divides his film into 9 parts: A "Prologue" seven moments in time, followed by an Epilogue.

The Jester, Summer 1400
Theophanes the Greek, Summer-Winter-Spring-Summer 1405-1406
The Holiday, 1408
The Last Judgement, Summer 1408
The Raid, Autumn 1408
The Silence, Winter 1412
The Bell, Spring-Summer-Winter-Spring 1423-1424

Already in the prologue Tarkovsky sets up a kind of abbreviated pattern for the rest of the film. Here Yefim, a creator on the run, is chased by a mob as he daringly jumps into his balloon, a hide-bound, medieval version of a hot air balloon. Amazingly, with Yefim hanging by the ropes, the balloon takes him up and away, revealing an entirely new perspective of the universe, as the frustrated mob below menacingly lift their fists into space. Yet, as in numerous occasions throughout this film, the miraculous creation is doomed from the start; Yefim and his balloon quickly come crashing to earth, sealing, it appears, his doom.

In "The Jester," Andrei (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and his fellow monks, Danil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) leave their Andronikov Monastery on a search of work. Forced by heavy rains to seek shelter in a barn, the three encounter a surly crowd being rudely entertained by a jester, who mocks not only the approaching monks but all others of social position and power, including the Boyars, members of a social class similar to England's knights. While Danil and Andrei watch the bawdy show, the self-righteous Kirill, we later discover, secretly sneaks away to report the Jester. Soon after a group of soldiers appear, beating the Jester and arresting him.

Here we see another kind of creator being punished for his art. Through this enactment, moreover, we begin to perceive the harsh conditions of those who must suffer the powerful and rich. There is clearly little room for even a joyous mockery of values in this unjust society.

"Theophanes the Greek" explores the life of the prominent master of icons. Visiting Theophanes, Kirill is surprised to find the artist at a complete standstill, all of his apprentices having abandoned him to watch a public torture and execution of a criminal. To his surprise and delight, Theophanes offers him a position to become his assistant in the decoration of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. Kirill pretends to resist, but finally accepts the offer if Theophanes will come to the Andronkov Monastery and offer him the position in front of the other monks.

When the time comes, Theophanes instead sends a messenger, asking Andrei Rublev to be his assistant. Danil is angry and refuses to join his friend in the journey, but later relents and wishes Rublev well. Kirill, furious about the transition of events, not only hurls accusations at Andrei but verbally attacks all his fellow monks, leaving the monastery forever. Andrei has no choice but to take along a slightly oafish boy, Foma, as his assistant. Andrei realizes now that even joy can bring forth anger, jealousy, and loneliness, for it is clear from his conversation with Kirill that in the past the two have been deeply in love, with Andrei admitting that he has seen the world through Kirill's eyes.

"The Holiday" reveals another side of the highly Christian Russian world in which Andrei inhabits. On a night-time stroll Andrei encounters a community of pagan worshipers celebrating rituals of sensuality and lust. The celebrants run naked through the forest and fornicate openly on the beach.

As a voyeur to the festivities, Andrei is caught by a group of men, tied to a cross, and threatened with downing. A young naked woman comes forward and frees him. As the sun rises a group of soldiers, clearly Christian, begin to attack the pagans with the intent, apparently, of killing them. The young woman escapes by swimming the river where Andrei and his fellow men are gathered in a boat. They force the young Foma to look away as the naked pagans are rounded up.

Again a force of possible creation has been thwarted. Even a celebration of nature and the sexual body is dangerous in this highly divided and fragile world through which Andrei has silently passed.
Indeed what Andrei has witnessed in the various events of the film so far comes to influence his early statement of values in "The Last Judgment." Here Andrei and Danil have found an excellent job, the decoration of a church in Vladimir, but their work is not progressing, as Andrei, somewhat in doubt, but gradually out of principle, refuses to paint the topic he has been assigned. The horror of the subject appalls him, as he recognizes the theme as being another way that those in power terrify the common folk.

A young girl, a holy fool, enters the church, peeing at its entrance, desecrating the spot; yet her simplemindedness and innocence allows Andrei to suggest the painting of a feast instead of a punishment. We never see him put a brush to paint, nor paint to wall, for it is not the act that matters but the significance of thought. Once again, creativity has been squelched by those in authority. But at least we now have a hero who may overcome the obstacles he may meet.

"The Raid," a series of absolutely horrifying images of rape, torture, and murder, seem almost to wipe out any possibility of creativity and hope. While the Grand Prince is away in Lithuania, his jealous brother, (paralleling Kirill's jealousy of Andrei) has joined forces with the Tartars. Their invasion of Vladimir, replete with cows set afire, falling horses, and dozens of humans speared, knifed, and quartered simply for the sport of it, presents visually the world that Andrei had refused to paint. It is, in short, a hell on earth. As Durochka is taken away by a Russian to be raped, Andrei takes an ax to the perpetrator. In the end of this slaughter only he had the now-mad girl have survived. Having been transformed from a spiritual being into a murderer, Andrei gives up any possibility of creation, abandoning both his art and his voice to the brutal world.

"The Silence" is just that, a long emptiness that has now settled over the Andronikov Monastery for four years and will continue to define Andre's world for twelve more. It is a cold winter and the monks have little to eat. Old and physically destroyed, Kirill returns, asking to be taken in. He is finally accepted, but only if he will copy the scriptures fifteen times before his death.

But even Andrei's silence cannot help. He has kept Durochka with him. But when Tartars stop at the monastery for a water break, their leader carries her away to be his eighth wife. The passive monks, including Andrei, can do nothing to help, and the idiot child is delighted by the act; now she shall eat and live—if they let her—an exciting life. For Andrei, however, it represents simply another failure; he cannot even protect the innocent.

The final set of scenes is perhaps the most profound. Men are seeking a bellmaker for a new cathedral being built by their prince; the boy they find at the noted bellcaster's hut tells them his father has died along with the rest of his family. The only other bellmaker is near death. They turn to go, afraid of the consequences of having been unable to find a craftsman. The young boy, Boriska, however quickly tells them that he can cast a bell, that his father has told him the secret upon his death bed.

The men are doubtful but have little choice, and take him away with them. Now Boriska is caught up something vast; he must find a location, the right clay to use, must dig a pit, put up molds, negotiate with the Prince and other wealthy figures for the correct mix of silver, melt the metals, and pour them into the molds. Nearly night and day, the young worker supervises and works without stop. Will the clay hold, will the bell, if it survives, actually ring or remain mute? Boriska knows that if he fails it will surely mean his death. As he quietly observed the actions of the pagans, Andrei silently watches.

After months of this exhausting work, the furnaces are fueled and released into the mold. When it cools, the clay is chipped away. Now they must haul it, through an intricate series of ropes, across the stream and up into the half-constructed tower. Hundreds of men work against time, as the nobles gather to celebrate the bell's completion, many of them certain that such a clumsy child cannot possibly have accomplished the task. So frightened is Boriska that he can hardly participate, as he is ordered to come forward as everyone waits in anticipation.

The clapper is pulled, pulled in the other direction, returned, and pulled again. Finally, the bell rings out a somewhat deep, sonorous, clang. All are overjoyed. The villagers applaud, the nobles smile and turn away to continue their celebrations in the castle.

Boriska is seen in this long-shot panorama walking alone into the distance. Suddenly he falls into a puddle of muddy water as Andrei passes. We observe the child weeping uncontrollably. Andrei goes to him, holding Boriska's head to his chest. The tears continue. "I lied," admits the child. His father told him nothing, left him ignorance:"the skinflint," cries the young man. The bell has come into existence, clearly, only out of the boy's innate talent and faith. He has created the impossible.

Breaking his long silence, Andrei invites the boy to join him: "Come with me. You'll cast bells. I'll paint icons." Art may, after all, survive.

In a final epilogue, Tarkovsky transforms the screen into color and gradually, in an almost abstract tracing of Rublev's images, shows us what resulted from that coupling, an incomparable visual splendor.

Los Angeles, February 9, 2010

1 comment:

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