Tarkovsky’s Andre Rublev plows the same ground as Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, but with greater success. No, I haven’t been smoking anything; I’m serious. A collection of metaphorically related vignettes that loosely follows the life of Russia’s great medieval artist, Andrei Rublev is about nothing less than the struggle between mankind’s spiritual and carnal natures. It is also one of the rare films featuring Christianity that neither belittles the faithful nor condescends to them. I’ll take this film over The Robe, The Greatest Story Ever Told or even Ben Hur any day of the week.
All the same, this film is not typical wholesome family entertainment of the Disney variety. It’s more like the cinematic equivalent of broccoli – you may or may not like the flavor, but it’s good for you. There is nudity. There is violence. If you’re an animal lover, it may give you nightmares (at least two horses and one cow probably died in the process of filming). But you know, the Bible itself is full of plenty of that kind of stuff. What makes it palatable is the moral context – the material is in service of an authentically moving spiritual journey. The film may not shy away from the ugliness of medieval Russian peasant life, but it also does not shy away from the message of redemption through grace – and I’m not referring to "grace" in an exclusively Christian context.
While grace wears Russian Orthodox garb in this film, the concept expands to occupy a more universal definition through the use of strong metaphorical imagery. Grace, it seems to suggest, is a state of mind: if you believe it is a gift from God, this film will probably affirm your faith; if not, it will won’t offend you with overt evangelism.
The beauty of Andre Rublev is that, like life itself, it places its world before you in all its wonder and horror, and then lets you decide what to make of it. It strives to illuminate the human condition, rather than preach platitudes.
The best art has a way of doing that.
As for the DVD itself, Criterion has done a marvelous job of pulling together some rare documentary material, as well as enlisting the aid of Harvard film professor Vlada Petric in the creation of a somewhat dry, academic commentary track. My one complaint is that the transfer, while supposedly made digitally from a pristine 35mm print, lacks sharpness. It is also not anamorphic 16×9, which I consider an essential feature of any DVD of a film shot wider than 1.66:1.
All the same, Andre Rublev is an indispensable film for the serious cinephile’s collection.