We’re there. Right there. Somewhere. Near a ruined castle, as a man fills a rudimentary balloon with hot air and clings on as it climbs and pitches and yaws. And we’re still there. With him, as he looks down on a desolate landscape of swamps and broken woods, like Passchendaele centuries later. He, like the country on which he gazes, is not destined for a soft landing.
So begins Andrei Tarkovsky’s uber-arthouse masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (part of this summer’s retrospective), its opening sequence an extraordinary inspiration for much of the best work in The Revenant and a signal for what Tarkovsky will do later in Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. The film continues, in episodes that sometimes work chronologically and sometimes don’t, the images building into a tapestry depicting Russia, past, present and future, in all its appalling glory. Fleeting through one’s mind as images pile on top of each other never less than visually gorgeous, come thoughts of spirituality, artistic endeavour, friendship, honour, compassion, joy, sex, war, cruelty and, ultimately, love. They crowd the mind, the film demanding that the viewer meets it half way in its work.
An immense bell is cast in an sensational imagining of the sheer effort and elemental complexity of that task as undertaken in the Middle Ages. The works are led by a boy thrust into the role through his chutzpah and desire to save his skin and by his father’s sudden death. On the bell is etched the familiar scene of St George slaying the dragon – is the boy the Georgian Stalin and the bell Russia itself, being called upon, deep in Soviet times, to find its voice and ring again?
There are plenty of Tarkovskyian long takes, but a relentless pace too – not necessarily of narrative, but of imagery, the landscapes filled with people moving in the foreground and the background, battle scenes suffused with the fog of war, life always vibrantly present, yet always hanging by the sliver of princely favour or warlord’s whim. It’s a frighteningly modern evocation of the fate of ordinary people slain as they are caught in the backwash of alliances forming and fading of which they know nothing, shocking in its visceral impact, random in its dispensing of death and salvation.
It’s also a totalitarian film (reminding us of how the making of Apocalypse Now descended into a kind of dysfunctional fiefdom) with the director’s hand present at all times, his apparatchik cinematographer the instrument of his complete control. It has nothing in common with the Hollywood epics of today, but does trigger memories of the scale and confidence of Birth of a Nation, but without DW Griffith’s neo-fascist ideology polluting every scene. Over and over again, as the film plays back in your mind, you wonder how it ever got made – technically and politically – its authenticity irrefutable. But how?
Ultimately, it’s a extraordinary cinematic experience, made to be witnessed on a big screen, on grainy film, in the company of others with you for the full three hour runtime, still pinned to our seats as the titles roll by, in indecipherable Russian script. It is cinema as an aesthetic, collective assault on the senses – and, in those terms, it’s never been more ruthlessly conceived and executed.