So my friends just left after watching this, and hey, what am I going to do now except write about it? It's not like I'm going to pop in another movie after sitting through this three-and-a-half hour movie about a 15th century Russian icon painter. It turned out to be an absolutely perfect day for it--cold and windy with driving sheets of rain--so perfect to just settle in and watch a very slow, gorgeous and meditative movie that you know is simply never going to end. And much as I complain about everything, it is nice to have the kind of friends where you say "Hey! Want to watch a three-and-a-half hour movie about a 15th century Russian icon painter?" and they say "Sure!" And when they're done, they thank you for the experience, because there really is no movie like it and they never would have taken the opportunity to see it otherwise.
So this is from our good buddy Andrei Tarkovsky, best known for Solaris, and also the wonderful Stalker. He believes that one of the unique aspects of film as an art form is the dimension of TIME, and in order to watch one of his movies you really have to just slow way down and adapt to a different rhythm and different way of watching a film--but if you do, they pay great dividends. This film is good for that since you know up front that it is just so long you just stop struggling and accept. But we'll get back to that.
There are so many different interlocking and subtle strands that it's going to be impossible to give a straight plot recitation. I'll just describe key sequences, and try to group themes together. The movie is shot in black-and-white and the DVD I watched had the frame inset quite a bit so that the subtitles could appear without covering the image, which I liked, it frames the image and encourages you to look at it as a composition. We open with this church, and people blowing up a primitive hot air balloon. This guy runs up... and I believe it's the second shot, where you see the man running, this desolate, muddy landscape with bare, scattered trees, a shallow river that appears as white, and men on horseback in the misty distance, where you first say "Holy shit, this is unbelievably gorgeous." The guy runs in, runs to the top of the tower, as we see the pursuing people coming in from the distance, and he grabs a rope. The guys below have cut the cord, and the man floats away in the balloon, looking down on the landscape and the various people, until finally he crashes. This lasts maybe five minutes, tops, but already we've had several shots that are just jaw-droppingly beautiful.
So now we join these three monks traipsing across the countryside. This is some DESOLATE countryside, we have so many shots of these great, empty distances, usually muddy or snowy, that the sense of this vast, miserable land is quite palpable throughout. They come and take shelter from the rain in this barn, where a jester is performing. We watch the jester for a long time, and the people watching him. This is where you start to notice that the movie will often take up with one minor character and follow him or her for a while, and they will have a character scene that is terribly vivid, and then the interest of the movie will drift off to some other minor character or other. In this way the movie reminded me of a Breugel painting, in which you have a wide view of a town with a hundred individual figures, each of which you can focus on separately, finding each one quite distinctive and true-to-life, then move on to the next, and finally draw back, and gain this vast sense of all these little individual stories making up a society, showing you everyone in this town somewhat ignorantly going about their own little way, and that, along with the vast landscapes here, is just one way in which this film really is like no other.
So let's get back to that thing about using the dimension of time. Tarkovsky lets things unfold over long minutes, and doesn't care if there are long periods where you don't have the slightest clue what is happening. It's like in a novel, where you're thrust into a scene and pick up clues as to what's happening as you go along. For example, it's about a half hour in before we focus on our main characters and learn their names. We've seen them--they were the traveling monks sheltering from the storm--but they just sat in the corner and we watched the Jester. We finally focus on on Andrei and his two friends. Okay, so this is the sequence that initially blew me away: First, Andrei is talking about faith and imagines himself as Jesus carrying the cross up a hill [in the snow] and being crucified. He and his cohorts are traveling through the woods [okay, this is happening 1408 RURAL Russia, so they literally have NOTHING but horses and a few wooden carts, canoes, huts--it is PRIMITIVE] when they spot people with torches running through the misty twilight woods. He follows them, and watches as they launch a canoe full of burning twigs down the river. Later he is looking at a naked woman in a hut [he's fascinated, because he's a monk] and he is caught, brought in, and tied up. They talk as they tie him how they are crucifying him--as he had just been imagining. Then he has a short theological discussion with the woman--she's a pagan, believes in many gods and in lovemaking and sexual pleasure--and she unties him. He escapes, and finally finds his troupe in the morning. As they talk, a canoe drifts down the river--we follow it as it slowly passes behind our characters as we pan across their faces, until it strikes their canoes with a thud. It is the canoe the pagans launched the night before, now burned down and smoldering. Then they hear a disturbance and this couple is being hunted by knight-types on horses. It is a man and woman, two of the pagans, being arrested for believing in more than one God. The man seems to be escaping, but he is caught and dragged back. The woman struggles and gets away, cheered on by her boyfriend, who is caught, but is happy if she gets away and survives. She runs into the river and swims right by our main characters--and at that moment we realize that she is the woman from the night before, who untied Andrei and let him go. This all unfolds over about 30 minutes, with this rolling rhythm where someone or something from earlier in the film comes back and it all just rolls on and becomes more interwoven and complex.
Now, I've mentioned a few times that the photography here is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but I'm not sure if you understand just HOW jaw-droppingly gorgeous it is. Not only do you have these ravishing images in this beautiful black-and-white photography, but so often they are the result of a vast landscape filled with people spread out miles into the distance. You know how in Lawrence of Arabia you have those scenes in the middle of the desert with tents spread out way into the distance and you say "Woah man, those are real people like miles away, not like digital extras like today, those people are really way BACK THERE and all this is really coordinated?" Well, this movie has that in spades, spread out over three hours, and often they make for some just achingly gorgeous visuals. For example, when Andrei and pals leave the shelter, we see them walking by these stark trees by a still lake with a thin spit of land gray in the misty distance... and as they walk off, we see the beautiful forms of horses walking across that distant thin spit of land. Furthermore, these gorgeous images aren't just pretty for beauty's sake--they all contribute to the story. For example, those distant horses are taking away the jester as a non-believer. He will come back deep into the third hour, by the way. So this film is an excellent example of really using the image as content, because while each of these images is a stunning feast for the eyes on its own, it is also telling the story. One also must note that several of the takes here are VERY long, and may settle on a great many things over its running time, and that each of those things will be impeccably composed. Many of them are also miracles of coordination and timing, as you might be following an action that involves forty to a hundred extras, then pan over in one continuous shot as a main character walks into frame, follow them for a while, then move back to where some other extras are all doing something else, and it's all PERFECT. The mind reels at that kind of complex coordination. In short, let me simply say that if someone were to claim that this is the most visually beautiful movie ever made, they could make a very good argument. My friends were both issuing more little "unh's" than I had ever heard, at the beginning of every shot, because so many of the shots were just so breathtakingly beautiful.
So one of my friends was heard to note "There is remarkably little icon painting in this movie," and it's true. Tarkovsky shows very little art, which is all part of his design. The overall story tells of Rublev's various periods of artistic blockage and loss of inspiration, and what ends up bringing him back. At the first, we have a lot of material about how he's blocked and can't paint, then he finds inspiration in a young peasant girl and a new way of looking at his commission--and the next thing you know the Mongols are invading, and breaking into the now-painted church and burning it down. So this is a movie about a painter that skipped the painting of one of his most famous works, and we only see it from a distance before it is burned down.
I am also pretty much skipping most of the little stories and subplots that make up the film proper, but several of them are very involving and moving and resonant in the way of good literature. There are also several times where you will have absolutely no clue what is going on, or who you are looking at. Our three main characters are very hard to tell apart, and like I said, often it's toward the end of a scene before you figure out what is happening--if at all. But it still remains interesting, because even if you can't follow the actual plot, the visuals and tone and actions all carry a symbolic, larger-then-the-story meaning, and you can just coast on them. Several of the images and things that happen here seem to have oversized resonance and symbolic import, but in a way that charges it all to life. It's also a pleasure to watch a film by someone who really knows how to wield the power of an image. There is a great deal of horse-related symbolism, and my friend noted that there's a lot of story action expressed in who is moving left-to-right, who is moving right-to-left, and who is moving vertically.
By the end of the movie, you truly feel that history has passed. That's the beauty of long movies and long novels--you're involved with them for quite some time, so you really have MEMORIES of their earlier parts stuck in your brain like experiences. The last section diverts to this young boy--he looks not older than fourteen, more around ten--who tells these people that his father imparted the secret of casting bells before he died. Next thing we know, this KID is in charge of this MASSIVE bell-casting effort by the town, and put in charge of hundreds of people. You get a lot of insight into how people in 1424 would have cast a two-story tall bell [it is an INVOLVED process]. In here you might say to yourself "This movie must have cost a BILLION dollars!" because of the sheer massiveness of this set--and all the others you've been seeing all along [not to mention a distant medieval village straight out of an ancient woodcut that I never thought I'd see the likes of in reality]. The thing is, this child is in charge of all these people, and we're not sure if his father told him ANY secret, which is the only thing giving him any power. Is it just a bluff? The kid knows that if the bell doesn't ring properly he is sunk, and this incredible tension develops as to whether the bell will actually ring or not. Meanwhile, Andrei is hanging around, fascinated with the boy--presumably, on a thematic level, with the enormous act of faith the kid is taking--staking his whole life and all this effort of the whole town on his belief he can make a bell. And let's not count out the spiritual implications of a bell itself. There is a brilliant moment of unbearable tension as someone gets under the bell and starts rocking the clapper--which is itself hundreds of pounds--and it starts creating this "whirr, whirr, whirr" sound as it swings more, and more, closer to hitting the side each time, whereupon we will hear whether the bell works or not.
The resolution to the bell story and the following integration of Andrei into that story is quite moving and perfectly brings together the whole film. Then--remember how I said the film has been quite coy about showing us any artwork? Well, the last thing is about five minutes of full-color looks at real icons by the real Andrei Rublev. For this gambit to work, the real paintings have to have the ability to BLOW YOU AWAY after sitting through that movie--and they do exactly that. They are brilliant, and you get several close-up details that show you their age and deterioration, and they are so stunningly beautiful... then you think about everything you've just watched in the last three and a half hours and how that it all integrated into these paintings and WHAM! The entire film comes together like a shot, and it did indeed bring tears to my eyes.
So let's sum up: 1) There is no other film like this. 2) It can legitimately be said to be one of the most visually beautiful films of all time. 3) It is incredibly complex and moving, much more like a novel or a painting than a film. 4) It can legitimately be considered one of the best films ever made. And yet, after all this, I realize this movie is going to be a hard, if not impossible, sell for most people. It's incredibly long, it's incredibly hard to figure out, it's incredibly slow and talky and will strike most people as phenomenally boring, and it has zero resonance to your daily life. Plus I just don't think there's that much popular interest in 15th century Russian icon painters. I barely ever see them mentioned in Us Weekly. Nevertheless, if you ever want to see something completely different, I would say almost anyone would get something out of watching even the slightest portion of this film. If you can make it an hour and fifteen minutes, you'll see a ton of stunning photography, get the whole thing about the interlocking storylines that unfold over time, and understand a great deal about how to compose shots and create powerful images that fully serve the storytelling. So I would get it and even just watch a while of it, it'll still be worth it. If you want to watch the whole thing, don't be afraid to break it up and watch it in parts to make it easier. Or you can do what I did, get some friends with attention spans and willingness to face challenging stuff, get some munchies, and just settle down for a few hours and let a movie give you a major experience.
Yes, you should, even if you just watch a small portion of it. The whole thing is probably of most interest to intellectuals and academics, but I cheer anyone on who wants to give it a try.