If only arthouse cinema were always this enjoyable. Having only seen Rublev's director's final film, via boxy little YouTube, I was expecting this earlier work to loom like a Rothko, inscrutable and waiting for me to project my thoughts onto it. As it was, and as one critic has noted, it had the bustle and expanse of a Bruegel and much to arrest the attention. There are also scenes and images herein much more lyrical than either implies.
My key to this 60s epic of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is a line given here to a Tartar chief invading the town of Vladimir. He is in league with a treacherous brother of the Grand Prince, and has the Virgin birth explained to him via the art in a temple he has just ransacked. 'Stranger things happen in your Russia,' he concurs.
In his not-entirely-unrelated The Idiot, Dostoevsky showed how important icons have been to the Russians: not just as depictions, but gateways into the divine. Miraculous and terrible things are recorded in this art – and just as unlikely and violent occurrences pepper the vast landscape.
This is a film in which an artist is the hero – one of the most celebrated painters in his country's history. He is a 15th century monk, and there is a helluva lot of religious content here, not just in imagery but comprising maybe a third of the script. Andrei has no typically heroic narrative, but is framed as a saint, someone with integrity who seems unconcerned with his genius.
Religious art was suppressed under Soviet rule. And in Rublev, sumptuous close-ups of that art constitute the revelation, the truly apocalyptic sequence at the end of these three hours. Tarkovsky's film was banned for several years, and drastically edited on its first release. In its own winsome way, it skewers the religious spirit (faith mutated into judgmentalism) and those who betray their country. But its internal world has unusual elegance – the director believed the original aim of cinema was 'recording the very movement of reality', and the pace feels like a release from Hollywood's fast cuts to a more lifelike stumbling across beauty, with focal objects being obscured, discoveries unexplained, conversations turning suddenly, and the landscape just as suddenly showing you marvellous things.
This is the first of four Tarkovsky films being shown at the UPP – following Mondays feature his Solaris, Mirror and Stalker, and though all are available online, seeing these films in their original cuts on a big screen is inescapably the best way to experience this artist's vision.