It is the early fifteenth century and in Russia one man dreams of flight, just as the birds do. To that end he has created his own hot air balloon, and with the help of assistants has set it up on the nearest cathedral, which is the tallest building around. However, the locals are deeply religious, and regard any kind of scientific progress such as this as blasphemy therefore are arriving in their droves from across the lake, panicking the inventor's assistants, though not enough to prevent him actually getting airborne before they can stop him. As he sails through the sky he takes in the view of the ground below, with its plains, buildings and the people who uselessly stand and watch this remarkable feat they wished to halt - but he has to return to earth eventually.
What does that have to do with the Russian Orthodox Christian icon painter Andrei Rublev, the chap this film is named after, you may ask? Director Andrei Tarkovsky (who penned the script with Andrei Konchalovsky, the man who gave the world Tango & Cash) didn't throw that bit in for the hell of it, he was making a point about how the world as he saw it was deeply suspicious of anything progressive, yet that wasn't the whole story with its portrait of the artist, for it was as much a rumination on the worth of creating things, art mainly but other aspects of life as well, when life around that art pretty much goes ahead without much attention paid to it in the long run. Or was the fact that Tarkovsky was making a film about someone hardly anyone other than icon experts would have heard of significant in itself?
Certainly the only reason Rublev's work endures is because interested parties have sat down and taken in what Tarkovsky dreamt up to depict his existence, which may or may not have happened the way he portrays it since the history of the era was not written about much, even at the time. Yet his educated guess managed to conjure up a sense of a society that was backward compared to ours, though in other ways depressingly similar for there were still individuals, larger groups and indeed whole nations which found it all too easy to turn on their fellow human and attempt to either beat them down into submission or destroy them outright, and they may not always need religion as an excuse as most of the antagonists Rublev encounters does, either. With that in mind, where is the place for art in this brutality?
Tarkovsky was as much attracted to capturing rural landscapes, especially forests and still waters, as he was to invoking the signs of the apocalypse, and there was plenty of both in this. He was criticised for having no sense of humour or pace, but since this depiction was of the past that was slow and humourless, you could argue to his accuracy. His protagonist almost constantly sees his time on Earth disrupted by violence, and he feels powerless to do anything about it, no matter that he does intervene in selected cases. When he sees a jester taken out to be tortured as punishment for making merry early on in the story, he does nothing, as he regards his paintings as his mark on the world, a paean to all that is spiritually good and honest that he must hope will persuade the wicked away from their evil ways, yet once the Tatars invade and their leader basically makes fun of his efforts that now appear meaningless, it sends Rublev into turmoil; call it a midlife crisis, but he is affected by the devastation he now acknowledges.
In fact, it will take a miracle to draw him out of his dejection, which in an odd way was what Tarkovsky provided for him come the end of the film. Not simply because the monochrome world we have been experiencing suddenly bursts into blazing colour as we are shown those icons which have endured down the centuries after all, but because of the conclusion of possibly the greatest sequence in the director's oeuvre, which was the creation of the bell. The locals, now in a time of peace (though you have to respect how temporary that may be after what you've witnessed), are instructed by the young son of the late bell maker in how to craft a huge example in time for the arrival of the Prince, but he is not letting slip he has a secret. That secret is what represents the miracle that keeps Rublev going, but it is not one from God, who may have given up on us by this time, but one from mankind and Rublev as an example of that finds fresh inspiration, like The Incredible Shrinking Man, he still exists in this huge, bleak world, just as the pagans he met were able to carry on in their vitality and indeed how this film was able to escape the grasp of the deeply unimpressed Soviet authorities and make it out, to enormous respect across the globe. Music by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.
[No extras on Curzon's DVD, but the print is restored - it's the three hour version originally approved by Tarkovsky released in the 1960s, not the extended version.]