Upon exiting the press screening for the digital restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev, I overheard a couple in front of me discussing the film. The redheaded woman expressed a sentiment that I feel confident the majority of the audience could relate to. “It made me feel so much all at once, but I’m not sure I understood it,” she said, nodding a bit to herself as if to confirm that no, there wasn’t anything she had missed exactly, but some overarching idea had simply flown over her head.
That being said, the film’s overarching message didn’t go over her head because the film really has no overarching message. There is nothing to “get”. Not in the way that one usually “gets” a film. Oddly, the first part of her opinion actually confirmed that the film absolutely had its desired effect.
You don’t “understand” Andrei Rublev, so much as you internalize it, you empathize with is, you feel it.
The three-hour retelling of the life of the 15th-century icon painter Andrei Rublev, perhaps Russia’s first great artist, who faces violence and cruelty throughout medieval Russia was originally released, and subsequently repressed by the Russian authorities, in 1966. There were several reasons for this: its Christian spiritualism offended the Soviet authorities, its depiction of Russia’s savage history upset nationalists like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and its challenging form led to various cuts.
It’s interesting that although this film depicts the life of a painter, we don’t actually see Rublev paint anything until the very end of the film. In fact, there is a large portion of the film where Rublev doesn’t even speak, and several scenes where Rublev is less of a focus of the film and more of an audience stand-in, an observer.
The majority of the film is entirely black and white until it reaches its climax, and arguably the focal point of the film. The screen suddenly bursts into color and we’re finally ready to see Rublev’s paintings in extreme close-up — in the words of that one viewer, it makes you feel so much and all at once. As the camera pores over the details of the artwork, we feel, even if we have little understanding of the technicalities that go into creation, like we understand everything that’s gone into every brushstroke. We’re reminded that beauty isn’t in the understanding of a thing, it is an emotional response. That is what makes a painting great. It is also what makes a great film.