December 19, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
Russian / Italian / Tatar
Biography / Drama / History / War
#43 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time
Imaginary episodes from the life of a 15th-century icon painter.
“A superb recreation of medieval life dramatizes the eternal problem of the artist, whether to take part in the life around him or merely comment on it” — **** — Halliwell’s
“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.
First things, first. Yes, it’s a butt-numbing 205 minutes. It’s in black and white, has no “normal” narrative, and is mostly in Russian. This is the only DVD in my 10-year Netflix history, that I’ve mailed back unwatched, and then put back on my queue at the top position. The first time the length just seemed too daunting. But, there must be a reason that it’s number 43 on THE LIST. It deserved another chance.
With older, less mainstream films like this one, I sometimes like to read about them before watching. What I learned was not to expect a linear style of storytelling, with plot point A leading to plot point B. I wasn’t to expect the title character, Russian painter Andrei Rublev, to be on screen very often–in fact, there are several long scenes where a character takes the attention of the camera for an extended period of time, never to be seen again. The man on the balloon in the first vignette is a perfect example. Who is he and what are the circumstances of his balloon flight? And what does this have to do with painting or faith or being a monk? We are never told.
I was instructed in these essays to be aware of the movement of the camera, the brutality of the images, and most importantly, the background of each scene. This proved to be the best advice I could get before viewing ANDREI RUBLEV.
The film may, in fact, be about the struggle to find beauty in the harsh Russian winters (and summers for that matter). Or it may be about artistic motivation–how a painter sees the world and his faith and incorporates that into the icons he paints. It could be about the pettiness and jealousy that humans–including the most holy monks–struggle with on a daily basis. I have no idea.
It’s the story of a famous real-life painter with no scenes of painting. It is divided into a half-dozen chapters, some of which have no relationship to each other. Our main character isn’t in every chapter, and even when he is, he is dressed exactly like the other monks, making his identification difficult, if not impossible. “Which guy is that, again?” For the last hour, our hero is wordless, because he is punishing himself for a sin any of us would have likewise committed.
I can’t tell you if the acting is good or not. If the actors are dressed in authentic costumes or speak as they should. But what I can tell you is Tarkovskiy has composed shots, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Everything I marveled at in Kurosawa’s RAN–the horses and flags and the burning temple–are done better in this film. And horses? Oh my goodness, the horses. Every broken horse in the USSR must have had a cameo in this film. Horses are inside churches, falling down steps (in a famous, brutal, and real scene), running into battle, rolling on the ground, frolicking in the water, and eaten as a treat. To simply marshal this number of horses and riders is grounds for celebration.
An early scene has three monks traveling the Russian countryside, through mud and rain. (I was chilly for the entire 3 plus running time–never has a landscape looked less hospitable.) They enter a tavern (or is it just a barn) to take shelter. A jester is performing some sort of anti-governmental song and dance as the drunk patrons laugh along with him. When he’s finished, long after another director would go to some sort of conversation amongst the monks, Tarkovskiy instead does a slow 360 degree spin of the inside of the room. We see every face looking at us–the monks, the peasants, the drunk guys in the corner, some children in the shadows. He does two spins, I think. Most of the film is in wide shot, but on a few occasions we see close-ups of naturalistic Russian faces.
There are what appear to be throw-away scenes of nature–a water snake, a man covered in ants, a dead bird, a cat walking amongst a pile of dead bodies.
The outdoor shots are where the film really shines. The first scene, involving the balloon, has the camera follow the “pilot” as he walks around a church, enters it, climbs some stairs, climbs out a window, and reaches for the ropes which are keeping the balloon from flying away. We have somehow gotten outside with the pilot and in the background, perfectly framed, is a rapidly approaching group of men in canoes paddling towards the church to stop his flight. Both the ropes, the balloon, the man, and the distant background are in focus.
There are countless outdoor scenes involving hundreds of people and horses, where you’ll scratch your head wondering how everyone ended up in the right place at the right time. An attack on a village where the action takes place on four levels, a raiding army whose horses gallop on both sides of a lake, and in a part of the film rightly heralded, an entire village helps to create a huge church bell for the town.
This bell scene involves a boy who claims that his dead father left the secrets to bell-making in his hands only. This boy has not been seen by the audience in the first 2 1/2 hours of the film, but at this point he becomes the protagonist. He has little actual skill at this craft, but he does have some sort of natural bell-making ability. He orders workers around, discovers the right molding clay by literally sliding in it, and does not show the Tsar the respect he usually gets. The digging and melting of metal and pouring of the mold and the fire and sparks is thrilling. In a scene I’ll never forget, the men begin chipping away at the clay to reveal the smooth and huge bell beneath. It takes the whole of the village to lift it out of its hole and as the Prince and other royalty ride up to see it, we all know that if that bell doesn’t ring, the boy will lose his head.
This shot is spectacular. We are up a hill, on top of the bell and in one cut, we pan from the miles away village and its protective wall, follow a line of horses as they cross a river on a bridge, see the ropes that have helped to hoist the bell, pan over to men winching the bell out of the ground, look down on the boy, and finally straight down on the bell itself. Fantastic.
Was ANDREI RUBLEV exciting from start to finish? No. Do I have any idea what it’s about? No. I took a two-hour break in the middle to gather myself and, frankly, to wake myself up a bit. Plot-wise, there’s a lot of talk about the wickedness of man, along with some examples (the raiding Mongol army, the pagans who strip naked to run though the forest, the rapists, the guy who pokes out the eyes of artists so that they can never recreate what they’ve already produced.) But the shots are just superb. There are things happening in the background of every shot. There is choreography of hundreds of extras that left me speechless.
Am I in a hurry to see it again? Not exactly. But I’m glad I did.
ANDREI RUBLEVTags: 8.2, Andrey Tarkovskiy, Biography, Drama, History, Italian, Russian, Soviet Union, Tatar, Top 1000, War