Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they marvel at the mastery on display in Andrei Tarkovsky’s anti-biopic about Russia’s tumultuous 15th century as seen through the mental state of the time’s most famous artist. Sprawling and deeply engaging, it’s perfect summer superhero programming.
In the #24 (tied) movie on the list, a monk witnesses and affects some incredibly important events over a time spanning a quarter of a century.
But why is it one of the best movies of all time?
Landon: So we’ve arrived at the second Tarkovsky film on this list, and while it’s unmistakably Tarkovskyan, it is in many ways the first film’s inverse. Where Mirror was an intimate, free-form autobiographical account, Andrei Rublev is an epic portrait of one of Russia’s best-known icon painters.
But before we dig deep, I’m curious. What are your initial reactions to the film?
Scott: Trying to pick my mind back up off the floor and reconstitute it into something that resembles a brain. Not to risk hyperbole, but this was my first time seeing Andrei Rublev and, wow, it’s an epic if there ever were one.
But it’s also an epic that’s spent mostly on internal struggles and concerns – using large set pieces as stepping stones to bigger pastures of contemplation and “smaller stakes.” I don’t remember any explosions, though.
Landon: Well, it has deadly balloon rides. So there’s that.
What are the internal struggles and concerns that caught your eye?
Scott: The one that affected me the most shows up early on when the three monks Andrei, Kirill and Danil are walking across a field. One mentions a tree that he’s never really noticed before, saying that he’s appreciating it because it’ll be the last time he sees it.
That theme of missing the small joys because of their daily routine presence seemed both important and intrinsic to several of the other stories.
The second lesson? It’s really, really difficult to make a bell.
Landon: Jesus, yes – I remember seeing a repertory showing of the film in the theater, and I found myself literally holding my breath during those moments.
Scott: And yet I hear church bells every single morning and afternoon. It’s easy to take things – even the beautiful ones – for granted.
Landon: What you just mentioned illustrates a bigger point about the film. While it’s an epic film if there ever were one, it’s also an episodic film if there ever were one. Andrei Rublev isn’t interested in a linear story of the life and work of its title character – it’s about moments, things, interactions, historical incidents, philosophical ruminations.
One comes away from this three and a half hour film mostly remembering specific moments, not its trajectory as a whole.
Landon: It’s certainly an anti-biopic. And for all of Tarkovsky’s naturalism, I’d argue it resembles more the way we live and reflect on our own lives – as an array of incidents and moments that we sometimes have a consequential role in, and other times are merely party to.
It’s almost comic that a movie titled Andrei Rublev features so little of its title character in an incidental role.
Scott: What do you make of that?
Landon: I think Tarkovsky was more interested in exploring Rublev as an point of access for depicting certain moments in Russian history rather than conveying a conventional biography. He seems more interested in immersing us in the world of 15th century Russia, complete with frowning jesters and cows on fire.
Scott: Another blockbuster element I’d almost forgotten about.
Landon: Tarkovsky’s movies are known for their deliberate snail pace, but this film still covers over twenty years of history in slightly under three and a half hours.
Scott: It also doesn’t feel nearly as slow as some of his other work, maybe because of how sprawling it is or because Rublev is a spectator in his own movie.
I imagine that’s a major element of you considering it an anti-biopic.
Landon: Absolutely. There are so many scenes where Rublev is literally on the fringes of the frame, or disappears from screen during a large block of time (like the Tatar invasions). Which, again, ends up feeling more profoundly true to real experience. In the story of a person’s life, you can’t always paint them as the front-and-center character in every episode.
I like the notion of Rublev as spectator. He’s the lens through which we are able to view this time in history.
Scott: Which is really eye-opening when you consider how many biopics are poorly structured. The culprit most point to is that life doesn’t fit into a three-act structure, but maybe the real villain of biographical filmmaking is trying to pretend anyone – even the most important people in history – were the center of the universe for their time on earth.
Landon: Exactly. And I wonder one more thing about that. I think it’s safe to argue that the conventional film biopic emerged through Hollywood filmmaking (and probably from American, or at least Anglophone, literature). I wonder if the linear, streamlined structure of our biopics comes from the fact that America is such a “young” nation that constantly retells the story of its origins. With Russia and its almost incomprehensively vast array of traditions, transitions and historical characters – I wonder if a history like that demands a rejection of any conventions of the biopic.
Scott: That might be the case, and I don’t know nearly enough about Russian biographical films, but it might also be an element of Tarkovsky’s usual rejection of form being amplified by a film directly dealing with making art in the face of an authoritarian presence that seeks to stifle free voices.
Landon: We should probably mention the ending, and the film’s sudden transition to color footage of Rublev’s icons after over three hours of black-and-white squalor, war, and bell-making. What was your reaction to that moment?
Scott: Not at all like I felt when seeing the same thing in Wizard of Oz.
“And you were there, bell-maker, and you were there Tatar warrior…”
Scott: Honestly, I understand why it was done, but it was one of the few times where the symbolism felt too obvious. A message where art transcends told by showing art literally transcending the scenes of life we’ve just witnessed.
Landon: I get your point, but that moment was shocking to me the first time I saw it for a few reasons. One, because Rublev’s icons have such little presence in the movie itself leading up to that moment. Two, because the simple transition to color was shocking on its own after I’d immersed myself in this black-and-white world. And three, any blunt themes notwithstanding, I appreciated the power of it as a purely aesthetic moment – simply images and music, art accompanied by art, or art removed from the context of history we had seen up to that point.
And four, I was caught off guard because I was still wondering what happened to that flaming cow.
Scott: Speaking of which – wasn’t it kind of awesome to watch this movie during the summer time? Doesn’t it feel a little like a blockbuster?
Landon: YES. Tarkovsky is the perfect counter-programming, but Rublev is just as big in scope as something like Man of Steel. Next week I’m treating myself to his sci-fi action/adventure romp Solaris.
Scott: It’s huge in scope, deals with massive dilemmas and has some great (if contextually brief) action. The opening scene with the wild man in the hot air balloon is even shot in a way that promises a big action picture.
I’m surprised we haven’t heard about a remake being launched.
Landon: The Rock would make a great Rublev. If he can pull off acting inconspicuous, it’s Oscar time.
Scott: “In a time of great unrest, a group of men will team up to build something for a prince that will change the course of history.”
Landon: Goes to show you that you don’t have to be loud to be huge. I hope Zack Snyder is reading this. Even bell-making has an entire movie’s worth of drama on its own.
Scott: Edge-of-your-seat stuff. If they change the cow to lower Manhattan and call it Andrei The Giant, they’ll make a billion dollars, easy.
Landon: It probably still won’t play in Russia though.
Next Time: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive