Andrei Rublev Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Andrei Rublev

Andrei Tarkovsky’s second feature has had an immensely chequered career. Shot over a two-year period, it was completed in 1966, and promptly banned by the authorities (the then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev pointedly walked out during an official screening). After a print found its way to the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, it finally got a release on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the early 1970s, but in a severely truncated 145-minute version. Re-releases pushed the running time up to 186 minutes (the version shown on BBC2 and released on DVD by Artificial Eye and the Russian Cinema Council), but the Criterion DVD is effectively the Western premiere of Tarkovsky’s original 205-minute cut, The Passion of Andrei.

Whatever the problems faced by filmmakers working in the former Soviet Union, one thing they didn’t have to worry about once their script was approved was whether or not their films would get sufficient funding. Andrei Rublev is an epic on a colossal David Lean-like scale (adjusted for inflation, the budget would be right up there with Hollywood’s nine-figure blockbusters) – and all the more remarkable because it’s also a profoundly complex, philosophically intricate meditation on what it means to be an artist: the kind of script that, if made in the West, would either have to be considerably dumbed down or shot on a hopelessly inadequate budget.

The sheer scale of the film is seen right from the opening sequence, an anachronistic but compelling allegorical tale of an over-ambitious balloon flight – which before its passenger plunges to his death gives us an extraordinary God’s eye view of medieval Russia. The remainder of the film is divided into seven sections, spanning the years 1400 to 1424, during which Andrei Rublev (Russia’s greatest icon painter) is stunned into creative silence by the violence and cruelty that he witnesses – some of which is as graphic and shocking as anything to emerge from Western cinema over the following decades. Finally, in the film’s most memorable sequence, Rublev witnesses a young boy achieve the apparently impossible when he casts a giant bell – which inspires him to paint again.

Absolutely nothing like Andrei Rublev had ever been seen before, and the Soviet authorities made sure that nothing like it would be seen again: it’s a complete one-off. Tarkovsky was a perfectionist on a Kubrick-like scale, and his formidable attention to detail makes his vision of medieval Russia seem utterly convincing, not to mention authentically tactile: the constant focus on surfaces and textures mean you can feel the period almost as much as you can see and hear it. The compositions recall great paintings rather than other films: Tarkovsky’s images have been compared with Breughel, and with good reason.

The 2.35:1 picture is generally up to Criterion’s usual standard (though it’s not anamorphic), though the original print occasionally shows its age: there are quite a few spots and scratches. Tarkovsky films tend not to translate very well to the small screen (his images really demand the fine definition that a 35mm print offers), but this is comfortably the best video version yet released – and the gorgeous colour sequence at the end (where we glimpse Rublev’s surviving frescoes) is the most vivid version I’ve seen in any medium: the British theatrical prints tended to be rather pale and washed-out.

The sound, unsurprisingly, is mono, but is clear and detailed, albeit a little distorted at key musical moments (almost certainly a fault of the original recording). The only language on offer is the original Russian, which comes with optional English subtitles that, according to Criteron, translate 40% more dialogue than any previous subtitled version. Wisely, Criterion have erred on the side of generosity when it comes to chapters: there are fifty-three of them!

Perhaps understandably, in view of the film’s vast length, extras are somewhat minimal by Criterion’s usual standard, though there’s still some impressive material on offer. There’s a printed essay on the film by Village Voice critic J.Hoberman, and the DVD has a critical commentary by Russian cinema expert Vlada Petric, which instead of spanning the whole film prefers to concentrate on twelve key sequences (which are indexed separately), and is none the worse for that. Professor Petric also contributes to an 18-minute documentary, which contains some very rare interview footage with Tarkovsky (shot in the early 1980s by Italian filmmaker Donatella Baglivo) and clips from some of his other films, ending in a haunting montage of stills and posters from Andrei Rublev. Finally, there’s a very impressive animated timeline, paralleling the lives and works of Andrei Rublev and Andrei Tarkovsky with key events in Russian history.

[It should be noted that an alternative version of Andrei Rublev exists on the Ruscico label, which I hope I’ll be reviewing soon. Although based around the more familiar 186-minute cut, the transfer is anamorphic, and advance word is very promising on the technical quality – so it might be worth considering this version before splashing out]

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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