I studied two terms of Russian in High School and became enamored of Russian literature, being the only person I knew that had actually finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Since then I have always had a fascination for things Russian, including the novels of Dostoevsky and Pasternak, and thought the 1964 Russian film version of Hamlet to be the best ever (director, Grigori Kozintsev). Recently I saw for a second time the 1966 film, Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and starring the relatively unknown actor, Anatoly Solonitsyn, as the great 15th Century Russian icon painter.
The version available from Netflix (with sub-titles) is the full original version of 205 minutes, so it is a challenge for Americans to watch. Be advised that there are some very violent scenes (during the Last Judgment and the Raid). The film is loosely based on the life of Andrei Rublev, a 15th century monk who became Russia’s greatest artist. The film is the director/writer’s meditation on the vocation of the artist. Life in medieval Russia is depicted realistically, but there are scenes of beauty (especially with horses) that provide relief. There is also some comic relief provided by a jester.
Andrei Rublev struggles against the harsh and cruel theology of his time and against the oppression of rulers and the cruelty of the Tartar invaders. When asked to paint the Last Judgment in a church, he decides instead to paint a feast. He continually tries to be faithful to the deeper meanings of faith in Christ.
After killing a Russian who was threatening a woman, he falls back into self-doubt and retreats into the silence of the monastery. Ten years later he witnesses the casting of a huge bell for a new church, the work being supervised by a young craftsman who had never done this before. Through sheer ingenuity and faith the young man succeeds, and Andrei is inspired to resume his painting of icons. The Epilogue (in color) shows several of Rublev’s icons, which shine with a glorious light. Icons are images used in prayer to help the awareness of God’s presence. Gazing at a focal point in the icon is a form of meditation. Icons are basic to the spiritual practice of Orthodox Christians, and are a wonderful contribution to spirituality.
For those who live in New England there is a great treasure at the Russian Icon Museum in Clinton, Massachusetts (near Worcester). Please check out their website and visit the museum if you able: