After three sittings over the space of a month, Clay
and I finished watching Andrei Rublev
(1966), which, over three and a half hours, traces a few decades in the life of a 15th-century icon-painter. Despite our sacrilegious viewing habits (turning the film into a serial drama, watching it on a 12-inch laptop, etc.), I came out believing the film is undoubtedly a masterpiece. If only for the bell-making sequence at the end, in which an adolescent orphaned by the plague rises to command, manically and confidently, a huge crew of workers tasked with casting a bell for a cruel prince (the threat of decapitation hanging over the boy should the bell fail to sound)--if only for that sequence, I would rank Andrei Rublev
among my favorite films.
But, rather than dwell on its greatness, I'm going to write about something more objective, something that I noticed and could not shake while watching the movie. It first came to me during a battle scene. The Tatars were sacking the city where Andrei was painting (or, rather, not-painting) a church; they shot the men with arrows, dragged a woman by the hair, destroyed buildings and livestock, even set fire to a cow. The cow was trapped in a small courtyard, kicking and thrashing about, its back covered in flames. The camera lingered on its agony; this cow was really on fire, not in the world of the Tatars, not in the early 15th century, but in the world of Tarkovsky, in the mid-20th. Maybe the crew had poured some material on the cow that would burn away without hurting the animal, I thought. But the frantic jerking of the cow suggested it was in pain, not acting, and I doubt the USSR in the mid-60's had anything approximating animal cruelty laws. Even if the flaming cow can be explained away, the same cannot be done for the horse crashing down several flights of stairs and struggling (with broken legs, no doubt) to stand up again, or the dogs fighting and tearing at each other's throats.
In the era before CGI effects, verisimilitude in film had an entirely different meaning. (Nothing, for example, in Night Watch
, a recent Russian film with plenty of realistic computer graphics, might be mistaken for real.) The actions of the characters in Andrei Rublev
seem more real, seem documented in black-and-white; the Tatars really are encouraging the dogs to fight over scraps of meat; there are hundreds of horsemen galloping across the plain; this hole has been dug from the earth. Each action has weight.
Some contemporary filmmakers realize this heft of action in their works. Werner Herzog, in Fitzcarraldo
, tells the story of a man so blindly ambitious that he decides to hoist a river boat over a mountain in the Amazon. Herzog refuses to use any special effects, instead insisting that a river boat actually be moved, with ropes and pulleys, over a mountain in the Amazon. As a recent New Yorker
profile reports, this was not an isolated excercise, but instead his method of filmmaking.
Around 3 hours and 20 minutes into Andrei Rublev
, the film switches from black-and-white to color. We see, for the first time, the icons Rublev painted; up until now, we have not seen him lift a brush. What better way to show the act of painting than with this documentary footage of absolute stasis? Anything else would be a disappointment.