Retro: our movie & TV vault… a fresh look at neglected classics and cult favourites

Andrei Rublev
cast: Anatoly Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyav, and Irma Rauschdirector: Andrei Tarkovsky

174 minutes (15) 1966
widescreen 2.35:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens

Episodes in the life of Andrei Rublev, an icon painter in 15th century Russia… Rublev lived in violent times, marked by fighting between rival princes and the tartars. The savagery Rublev witnessed reduced him to creative silence, and he gave up painting. But his involvement with a young boy’s project to make an enormous bell restored him to life. The black-and-white film ends with a colour sequence showing some of the icons that Rublev went on to paint.
Rublev really existed, though Tarkovsky’s film is mostly invented. Andrei Rublev was his second feature, and at this stage in his career he was still working within recognisable genres: the war film (Ivan’s Childhood), SF (Solaris), and in this case the historical epic. His remaining four films – MirrorStalker (based on a SF novel, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, but a considerable distance from its source), Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice, the last two made in exile from the USSR – are much more personal, denser, more overtly poetic, mixing colour and black and white in occasionally startling ways… and to the unsympathetic, even slower and more obscure. Tarkovsky’s visual strategies as a director are very much those of the European art movie rather than Hollywood: long-held shots requiring the viewer to take in a lot of finely textured visual detail. His films do lose something on the small screen, though DVD is the next best thing to a good 35mm cinema print.
One advantage filmmakers had when working in the USSR was that, once the script had been approved, immense resources were at your disposal. Sergei Bondarchuk’s stunning seven-hour, four-part version of War And Peace is a case in point, but Andrei Rublev is another. This is an out-and-out art movie made on a David Lean-type scale, and it’s impossible to imagine this being made in Hollywood then or now. Decades before CGI, there really were thousands of extras in certain scenes, and the big set pieces such as the tartars’ sack of Vladimir are quite awe-inspiringly huge in scale.
Completed in 1966 after nearly two years in production, Andrei Rublev originally ran 205 minutes. This version ran into trouble with the authorities, partly because of the film’s violence and nudity (which is quite explicit for the time) and partly because the film was considered too ideologically unsound to be released on the eve of the Revolution’s 50th anniversary. After a single showing in Moscow, the film was shelved and re-edited to the present length (181 minutes in cinemas: PAL video and DVD formats run four percent faster, hence the shorter running time). The authorities prevented a screening at the 1968 Cannes Festival, though it did show there the following year and won the International Critics’ Prize. A non-authorised commercial release in Paris shortly followed; finally the USSR allowed the film to be released domestically in 1971. American and British cinema releases were two years later, in a version cut by its distributor to 146 minutes. (The BBFC has always cut a shot, during the Sack of Vladimir sequence, of a horse falling down stairs and through a wooden banister, due to British animal cruelty legislation. Rather surprisingly, this scene is intact in the present DVD release.)
The original 205-minute version was rediscovered in 1988 following Tarkovsky’s death. It’s available in the US on DVD from Criterion, in a single-disc region-free edition (in the correct aspect ratio but not widescreen-enhanced, NTSC format). Tarkovsky did endorse the 181-minute version which forms the basis of this DVD (one of the Russian Cinema Council’s 120 film project to release their country’s classics on disc – for more details, see my review of Solaris), so it’s arguable which version is definitive or which disc to buy. The Ruscico/Artificial Eye DVD is widescreen-enhanced, which makes for a sharper, better-defined picture – not to mention a soundtrack remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 (Criterion’s disc features the original mono). However, the Criterion disc does preserve the longer version and has several interesting extras of its own. Devotees of the film could do worse than to purchase both editions.
Artificial Eye/Ruscico’s DVD spreads the film over two discs (81 and 93 minutes), breaking at the original intermission point. There is a choice of menus in Russian, English and French. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 in either the original Russian or Russian with a French voiceover. There are subtitles available in 13 languages. Extras: two stills galleries, interviews with Tarkovsky’s sister Marina Tarkovskaya (this also appears on the Solaris DVD) and actor Yuri Nazarov, making-of footage, and biographies. The filmographies include links to trailers for other Ruscico releases: SolarisMirrorStalker (all Tarkovsky films to be distributed in the UK by Artificial Eye), War And PeaceThe CommissarSiberiadeThe Diamond ArmAt Home Among Strangers, and A Stranger Among His Own.