There are lists beyond count of the Greatest Movies Ever Made. Some lists are short, some endless, and all are subjective. Most contain the usual gang of suspects. So my ears perked up when I ran across a reference to a 1966 Russian movie named Andrei Rublev, a movie I was unfamiliar with. It was noted that many directors think it’s the Greatest Movie Ever Made.
So I borrowed it, and with some hesitation popped it into the player. It’s in Russian, filmed in black and white and is 208 minutes long. Also, it’s sized so that it runs across your screen in a band—correct from the film perspective, but not so easy to watch in your living room. Outside, the sky was blue and the clouds fluffy. I thought of my petunias, which were getting scraggly, and needed cutting back. I thought of the lettuce in the crisper that needed rinsing. But, sucking it up, I sat down and started to watch. I have to say, within moments, I was hooked. Andrei Rublev was a medieval icon painter (1360-1430) who was so influential that his painting methods became church law in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Rublev is shown journeying through a tumultuous Russia, though most of the time there is focus on a series of stories, including the sack of the city of Vladimir by the Tatars.
There are many odd things about this movie, one of which is you don’t see all that much of Rublev or his icons (until the very end), but somehow it all makes sense—this is a dream world. It’s been pointed out that Andrei Rublev shows a series of punishments being meted out, and since Tarkovsky was born and raised in Stalinist Russia, it makes sense that he’s evoking the cruelty and capriciousness of life under a totalitarian dictator. For me, the most powerful story was that of a young boy who had claimed to be able to forge a gigantic copper bell. We see him getting more and more nervous, and he knows that the Grand Prince who commissioned the bell will behead him if the bell doesn’t ring. It’s excruciating, as it must have been to live under Stalin.
Tarkovsky’s main strength is showing us visions, and as screen after screen of black and white images appear and vanish like bubbles in a stream, it made me think if he hadn’t been a filmmaker he would have been a painter. There are scenes that are like dreams, for instance when Rublev comes across some villagers celebrating Midsummer night by running naked down to a river with torches (a perilous sounding activity). This is one of the many scenes that got him in trouble with the authorities.
Should you watch it? Since it really is one of the greatest movies ever made–a tour de force of story telling, poetry and cinematography–sure. But. There are a number of scenes of extreme cruelty, and I found myself shaken by them. Maybe, though, this is what artists should do—shake us up. In an interview included on the DVD, Tarkovsky notes that if the world were perfect it wouldn’t need artists. And most of the movie is extraordinarily beautiful, a world of mist, flame and smoke. It’s a movie you watch knowing that it will change you, so it’s up to you.