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In the most powerful section of Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky’s hugely ambitious 1966 epic of medieval Russia, a young man whose village and family have been destroyed by the plague convinces the Grand Prince to let him make a beautiful new bell. The boy, named Boriska (and played by Nikolai Burlyaev with a whipsawing combination of youthful exuberance and self-flagellating despair), comes from a family of bell makers. Boriska claims that before his father died, he revealed to him the secret of casting a bronze bell. The boy, fresh-faced and inexperienced as he is, is hired. He enlists a small army of workers and runs them ragged as the seasons pass. Bouncing around like a busy bumblebee, he berates them about the right kind of clay, the right kind of pit, the right amount of silver, and at one point even has his best friend flogged for insubordination. Only briefly, and secretly, does he betray any hesitation, any sense that he might fail.
Tarkovsky takes in the epic scope of this undertaking. The camera peers down from mountaintops, from the sky at the workers toiling amid the dirt and mud. Then it hovers in closer, capturing the raw textures of their endeavor. Giant holes are dug; coarse chunks of dirt pass among dry, scabbed hands; massive fires are built; mad, exasperated eyes stare out at us in indignation, fear, doubt, petulance. Are these people forging a bell or a new world?
Finally, the bell is built, and hung, and rung. We wait an unbearably long time for its clapper to finally strike and send off a loud, low, clear, and perfect chime; Tarkovsky was known for making long, deliberately paced movies, but he was also a master of suspense. Having succeeded at long last, Boriska collapses in tears and frustration. Now, the film’s protagonist, the legendary Russian monk and icon painter Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn, in one of the great passive performances of cinema history), comes to the young man and comforts him. Amid his tears, Boriska reveals that his father never imparted to him the secret of bell making. The boy has been, essentially, flying blind.
It’s a wonderful, mysterious confession, and it lies at the heart of this wonderful, mysterious film, which is now getting a revival run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in a lovely restoration, and coming soon in a new Criterion edition. Over the course of his journeys, Rublev confronts jealousy, pettiness, carnality, and unspeakable violence. He even kills a man himself, in an attempt to save a woman from rape and murder during a brutal Tartar raid. Once criticized for the lack of emotion in his icons — his work, we’re told early on, is technically brilliant and subtle, but has “no awe…no faith that comes from the depths of his soul” — he finds himself unable to paint, even unwilling to speak.
Rublev is a mesmerizing portrait of an artist and cleric undone by a world that is cruel, chaotic, unexplainable. And it’s obviously about a lot more than medieval Russia; Tarkovsky never shot an impersonal frame, and he spent his entire career struggling for the integrity of his work. Suppressed by Soviet authorities, Rublev wasn’t seen in the USSR until 1971. Tarkovsky’s diaries from the period, among the most candid and anguished writings you’ll ever read by a filmmaker, are filled with exasperated accounts of officials placing obstacles in the path of his picture’s release, even as it garners praise and awards internationally. When the movie finally opened at home, the director saw no ads or posters for it anywhere, even though it was selling out its screenings. Many of his later films would suffer even worse fates.
But back to Boriska. In interviews, Tarkovsky noted that the story of the young bell maker spoke to the fact that generations never really passed on anything to one another, and that each person had to make their way through this world on their own. It’s an existentialist notion, but quite different from the sort that was fashionable in the 1950s and ’60s. Tarkovsky’s version of an indifferent world is inflected with the spirituality that is ever-present in his work, a sense that while we may be on our own, we are never quite alone.
Boriska carries on as if he understands a secret that nobody else does; indeed, he uses this supposed knowledge to judge others. And yet, it turns out, he doesn’t know anything. All he has, in other words, is his faith — a faith that comes close to breaking multiple times. And not only does he not know the secret, but, as we might suspect, he doesn’t even know if there ever is a secret.
Similarly, Rublev’s crisis of faith comes as a result of confronting a world that doesn’t seem in any way to reflect the divinity to which he’s dedicated his life. He’s a monk wandering a godless world, unsure if there is anything beyond the misery and horror he sees all around him. Boriska has the bell he doesn’t know how to make, and Rublev has the icons he’s forgotten how to paint. To that duo we may also add Tarkovsky, with the films he’s not allowed to direct, or release. All three men must find a way to persevere, to not only act as if there is a different, better world, but in some way to help bring it about through — and, perhaps more importantly, within — their work. What if, Tarkovsky seems to ask, the silence of God is the very essence of God? What if the fact that there is no secret is the secret?
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Opens August 24, Film Society of Lincoln Center
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