Saturday, March 12, 2011
Tarkovsky's Soviet Ecstasy
Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 cinematic masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, can be read as a metaphor for the individual's tortured plight within the ideologically stifling atmosphere of the world's first socialist society. For the film's protagonist, Rublev--a character perhaps only loosely based on few facts we have about the real-life biography of the fifteenth century icon painter--wrestles with the meaning of art in an age of violence and spiritual crisis. The metaphor was alarming enough to halt its distribution in the Soviet Union after a single Moscow airing, according to Wikipedia. After all, the director had chosen a religious man as the hero of his film in officially atheist Russia. Worse, he had tried to capture the genius of an icon painter, when the Bolsheviks had so viciously attacked icons as a symbol of pre-socialist decadence.
Rublev's film is divided into seven loose episodes, framed by a prologue and an epilogue, but these episodes are only loosely related to one another. As a Harvard film professor tells us in the film's Criterion commentary, Tarkovsky believes the juxtaposition of these seven episodes will make his film complex, more subject to the viewer's own meaningful interpretations. In fact, Rublev is not the protagonist of every episode, and doesn't even appear in some of these at all scenes. For instance, it's not Rublev who invents a flying machine in the film's brilliant opening sequence, it's just a creative man whose innovation is challenged by the obscurantist medieval mob who attack his assistants. The beautiful film, which is black and white save for the brilliant icons that appear in the film's epilogue, is multi-layered but never veers too far away from creativity or religion and the quest for meaning. What's interesting is that Tarkovsky seems to be saying that Rublev's calm, serene religious faces were the perfect if paradoxical artistic response to the medieval cruelty, persecution, and torture depicted throughout the film.