"Andrei" the giant

April 22, 2005, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 18 years, 10 months ago

Russian masterwork arrives at AFI

Just as no contemporary author would dare to undertake a work of the length, sensitivity, and historical perspective of a "War and Peace," "Don Quixote" or "Les Miserables", so too would no modern director undertake a film with the scope or complexity of "Andrei Rubelev."

Granted, it is cynical to assume that today's audiences would reject a film with the theological, political, and historical depth of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 masterwork, a nearly three and a half hour long discourse on everything from the role of art in society to the nature of God and man. And it is cynical as well to declare that today's filmmakers are either too profit-driven or too myopic to produce a film as intellectually challenging or multifaceted as "Andrei Rubalev."

But that fact is that there hasn't been a movie like it since. And because violence appears to be the hallmark of the modern historical epic ("Gladiator" anyone?) it is unlikely a film like this will ever be produced again. Allegorical but seldom didactic, epic but never gaudy or overblown, "Andrei Rubalev" is the type of movie that we haven't seen since, well "Andrei Rubalev" - a historical epic with a brain.

The movie consists of eight disjointed though brilliantly self-contained vignettes which follow the title character, a revered Russian religious painter, through his travels during the first quarter of the 15th century, a period that is turbulent even by Russian standards. Each segment finds him grappling with the forces of history and his own faith; in perhaps the movie's most gripping sequence, Rubalev stands in the ruins of a church recently sacked by the Tatar hordes, plods through the still smoldering ruins of his own icons and frescos, meditates on human cruelty, and repudiates his faith in art and mankind. It is a scene that's layered in symbolism and meaning. The burning artwork alone is a loaded visual metaphor, while the artist's crisis reflects the creative mind's struggle to cope with and internalize an oftentimes depraved and confusing world.

"Andrei Rubalev" is rife with such moments, as every scene, every conversation, and indeed every camera angle seems to hold some philosophical, symbolic, or theological meaning. And at 205 minutes long, none of the movie's deeper thoughts are left unfinished. "Andrei Rubalev" is practically a perfect whole. None of its plot lines are neglected, it develops at its own pace, and it retains the profundity and aesthetic depth that are usually lost in shorter or hastier movies.

The attention to detail is not without its tedium, but in this case, the tedium is well worth it. Tarkovsky, having granted himself three and a half hours, is not in a position where he has to choose between focusing on societal upheaval or on the torment of his title character. He gives equal weight to both, and consequently, one of the film's greatest accomplishments is the coexistence of historical sweep and a bona fide complex character. There are few movies that can claim to have both.

And there are few other films that are as cinematographically perfect. The wide-angle shots of the climactic Tatar raid on the city of Vladimir (a sequence that's graphic even in a post "Pulp Fiction" world) is, in Tarkovsky's hands, as spectacular as an extreme close up on a nameless peasant. It's clear that he didn't hesitate to make use of the Soviet Union's massive population. With its cast of thousands, "Andrei Rubalev" isn't just a thought-provoking movie, it's also a spectacular one.

Be warned, though: unless you're intrigued by questions of art, religion, and human existence, possess an incredibly open-mind, and have 205 expendable minutes, this is not necessarily the greatest movie from a viewer's standpoint. But if those prerequisites are met, the film's more rewarding qualities will greatly eclipse its maddeningly long run-time. Because there's nothing quite like it, and, chances are, there will never be anything quite like it again.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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