June 2nd, 2005

Andrei Rublev

That's the third time I've watched Andrei Rublev.

The first time was back in the 70s and what I saw was the version the Soviet censors mutilated. Theophanes popped up here and there without it ever being explained who he was. The film was obviously a masterpiece, but it didn't make a whole lot of sense.

The second time was back in my vicaring days. I remember writing a triumphalist piece in the parish magazine about how the movie heralded a return to Christian values in Russia.

And now? Well the first thing to report is that I ache like I spent last night hauling my sorry ass across those endless, boggy, Russian grasslands in the rain. Or as if I'd been digging a bell-pit. Three hours of medieval mysticism and barbarity really do take it out of one.

And I spotted, what I failed to spot before, that when Andrei loses his faith, it's faith not in God, but in the People. This is a movie about the Communist experience. About the Great Patriotic War and Stalin and the gulags.

The censors may have butchered the film, but the astonishing thing is that it got made in the first place. It's as if Robert Bresson had been handed the reins on Dr Zhivago. Hollywood never indulged its bloody-minded auteurs the way the Soviet system indulged Tarkovsky. Hollywood epics- even the best of them- are always a bit stupid. The only other directors who ever got away (God knows how) with making uncompromisingly intelligent epic movies were Kurosawa and Kubrick.

But Ran and Barry Lyndon are still a long way from being as punishingly intelligent as Andrei Rublev.

Even after three, widely spaced viewings, I don't altogether know what to make of it. My responses shift. First two times I was heartbroken when the Fool of God rode off with the Tartar horsemen. Third time I thought, "good for you, girl!" Tarkovsky is in love with complexity, ambiguity, mystery. He shows, he doesn't tell.

When I was a vicar I wilfully misremembered the film as ending on a close-up of the eyes of Rublev's iconic Christ. It doesn't. Nothing as straightforward as that. It ends on a shot of some horses on an island in the rain.