“Making two a year from 1960 onwards, I could have made 20 films. Fat chance with our idiots”, wrote Andrei Tarkovsky in his diaries in 1970. In fact, Tarkovsky, the greatest and most imitated director Russia has produced in the last 50 years, made seven full-length films between 1962 – when Ivan’s Childhood burst upon the world – and 1986, when The Sacrifice was completed. Two of these films were made outside Russia where the authorities deeply suspected his motives and were unwilling to accord him state funds.
In defence of the authorities (who often were indeed idiots), Tarkovsky was difficult to please. As an artist he felt entitled to be. I remember visiting the location set of The Sacrifice on the Swedish island of Faroe. It was bitterly cold, and since a night scene was called for, the cast, including the British actress Susan Fleetwood, waited for Tarkovsky, shivering in night attire. He was half an hour late and, according to a production assistant, had spent much of that time staring at himself in the mirror, readjusting his scarf and hat. “If he wasn’t such a damned good director,” Fleetwood said, “I’d have left long ago.”
But, of course, he was a damned good director – a metaphorical looking glass, as one critic has said, providing man with a reflection of himself. Perhaps his most Russian film and, oddly enough, the film that has been most appreciated in the west, is Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky’s second. It is epic in scale and scope – a commentary on the physical and spiritual foundations of Russia itself.
Rublev was not a fictional character but an icon painter and monk who lived and worked on the cusp of the 13th and 14th centuries, trained by the even more celebrated Theophanes the Greek. Tarkovsky attempted to paint a portrait of the time, as much through psychological truth as ethnographic accuracy. The landscape of Russia did the rest. “Our Russia – it has to endure everything,” says Rublev at one point to the spectre of Theophanes, who replies that it probably always will.
The film begins with a peasant launching himself in a balloon from a cathedral across the landscape of medieval Russia and ends with a superb montage of Rublev’s surviving icons. In between, Rublev witnesses the often horrific sufferings of a divided Russia, split between feuding princelings and Tartar invaders.
There are eight episodes in all, the most notable being the story of a boy who, to save his life, pretends he can cast a giant bell and succeeds through blind faith – a feat that inspires Rublev to paint again.
The film is as much about the role of the artist in society as it is about the emergence of the Russian nation. Rublev can only create art by sharing the sufferings of the age in which he lives. All Tarkovsky’s films say this, and their spiritual preoccupations and the poetic formulation of these that sets them apart. You can object to his vision as messianic and sometimes fundamentalist. It is hard, however, to mock the impact of his films.