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Sunday, September 24, 2023


Cinema Talk: ‘Rublev’ mixes history, fiction

Next week moviegoers will get a rare opportunity to see a Russian classic on the big screen. Director Andrei Tarkovsky’s thought-provoking epic, Andrei Rublev, will play Tuesday at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as a part of the Movies Houstonians Love series. The film will be introduced by gallery owner Fredericka Hunter.

Set against the backdrop of Russian history, Andrei Rublev follows a painter of the same name, who actually lived in Russia during the 15th century. His paintings have risen to great prominence, but details of his life remain mysterious. Tarkovsky built the film’s narrative by weaving what little is known about Rublev with contemporaneous historical events. The gaps were filled with fabrication, but any liberties Tarkovsky took are easily forgiven because Andrei Rublev is far from a typical biopic. It seeks not to recount a great man’s life, but to address philosophical issues that persist to this day, such as the role of art during tumultuous times in history.

Tarkovsky’s portrait of Andrei Rublev, played impeccably by Anatoly Solonitsyn, fits the mold of many artist types – a contemplative observer of the world, struggling to find his voice. As the film progresses, Rublev’s spirits are dampened by the horrors of the Middle Ages, a time in Russia when the Tatars were invading from the east, and oppression, disease, violence and corruption was all-pervading.

The human suffering of this period is well conveyed in Andrei Rublev. One scene shows a group of artists’ eyes being stabbed and mutilated at the order of a Russian prince. Other scenes depict gruesome battle scenes and lifelike violence. Seen from the kind-hearted viewpoint of Rublev, the pain of these events is accentuated. After he witnesses so many atrocities, Rublev begins to question the utility of art in a society so disarrayed, and how he should respond to all the agony he encounters. Most of the film is about his inner struggle and his attitude toward art, which shifts over time.

At three-and-a-half hours, Andrei Rublev may take a bit of effort for some viewers, but is quite rewarding in the end. The film’s greatest moments come in the last act, which revolves around a young man named Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev) and his efforts to create a massive bell for the prince, even though he doesn’t know how. He acts cocky and overconfident to hide his nearly insurmountable fear and insecurity, yet it’s he who gives Rublev the faith to carry on with his art, offering one of the most poignant conclusions in all of movie history.

Like Rublev, Tarkovsky went through artistic struggle. They both dealt with making art in oppressive circumstances – Rublev in medieval Russia and Tarkovsky in the Soviet Union. Andrei Rublev was made in 1966, but the Soviet government censored and withheld it from release for five years. Yet in the end, Tarkovsky, like Rublev, was able to show people it is possible for beauty and humanity to exist in a cold, callous world.

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