A Guide to an hours worth of
a film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
1966:Moscow. Mosfilm Studios
UO Knight Library owns two copies =
The Criterion Collection VIDEO LASERDISK 00046
and a (third-rate) videotape 01046
The film is divided into 71 chapters. I recommend the following chapters =
21. Holiday, 1408 [June]
36. Raid, Autumn, 1408
50. Tatar's wife
70. Andrei Rublev, "The Passion" (color close-ups, esp. of his "Trinity")
Let me add a word or two about the historical/cultural content of the "cuts" indicated above. I recommend that you read my comments before you go into the movie. My goal is to make the selected cuts as meaningful as possible for someone who does not know Russian cultural history and has not seen what comes before or what follows my selections.
The scene [#21] opens with the greatest of all Russian Icon painters Andrei Rublev and his crew of apprentices and helpers on their way to a job in the once-powerful feudal fortress city Vladimir in June of 1408. It is probably the evening of June 23, St. John the Baptist Eve, which falls immediately after summer solstice (the end of spring; the longest day of the year; a time of white nights in the northern latitudes, at its peak usually on June 21). As it gets dark, these artists and craftsmen are floating down the Kliaz'ma River. The Kliaz'ma River rises north of Moscow, flows between Moscow and the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery and eastward past Vladimir. The crew stops to make camp on the sandy bank of the river. Gathering firewood, Andrei gets caught up in a village pagan ritual. [In 1889-90, the pioneer Russian anthropologist Maksim Kovalevskii mentioned this pagan survival among Russian rural folk (TXT)] Notice the sounds of nightingales and of ritual bell percussion. The Orthodox Christian monk Andrei knows this is a forbidden earthly rite, but he is attracted to it. Some would say he seeks a way to join his high spiritual calling and art to the real soil of Russian folk experience, his "civilization" to his "culture".
One way to describe the linkage of Christian "civilization" with Russian pagan "culture" is dual faith [dvoeverie]. Andrei is about to have a "dual faith" experience himself, and so are you if you let the movie have its way.
The making of a straw effigy and the burning of it are documented features of peasant ritual on St. John's Eve. The sexual license portrayed here is characteristic of peasant spring and summer rituals. His attention fixed on the sensuality all around him, Andrei stands over a smoldering camp fire and his monkish robes catch fire. Fire and water are central to the pagan rituals of St. John's Eve (they are also central to Tarkovsky's own personal film imagery). Later lines of naked men and women with bright torches fan out into the Kliaz'ma River to guide the burning effigy which has been placed in a crude boat. The men and women are performing a characteristic ritual of St. John's Eve. The evening is a feast of combined Christian and heathen celebration. After all, the lustrations associated with John the Baptist involve sprinkling and immersion in water. Don't miss the scene downstream from the two lines of naked folk---a white horse comes into view and begins to thrash the river's surface as the ritual boat approaches. Next time you see the bright yellow (sun-like) blossoms of the "St. Johns Wort" (Klamath Weed) [ID], remember this scene. [A non-scholarly website explores the question of "dual faith" E-TXT]
Andrei is captured and bound in a stable by villagers who do not want him to interfere with their dear ritual. They know the official church is trying to stamp out pagan ritual. Marfa approaches him and plants an earthly kiss: physical contact of native paganism with highly refined and civilized Christianity. Notice the necklace she wears. Also notice how Andrei sheds his monkish cowl (identifying "uniform" of the black or monkish clergy) as he decides to melt into the woods and rejoin the village fest. The next morning Andrei returns to his associates on the river bank. They ask where he's been. The crude boat filled with the smoldering ashes of the effigy floats by behind the group as they breakfast on onions. It strikes their boat with a dull but sonorous thump.
As happens elsewhere in this movie, someone has squealed on the village revelers. The local landlord and his ruffian men-at-arms on horseback appear the next morning, accompanied by clerical enforcers, all bent on doing their official Christian duty. They hope to run down participants in last night's ritual. Sure enough, here comes Marfa and her significant other, chased by authorities. He doesn't get away, but she swims toward the middle of the river, immediately past the boat carrying Andrei, but he will not look at her. She splashes bravely out to deep waters. Where will she go, we cannot even guess.
31. Raid, Autumn, 1408
Now we jump ahead a few weeks to the fall of 1408 and the outskirts of the city Vladimir. We see a camp of warriors across a river. This army is led by a Russian prince who is a rival of his own brother for power in Vladimir. He and his warriors await the arrival of an allied Mongolian army led by a Tatar khan. They will join up at a difficult river ford in preparation for an attack on Vladimir. Heavy rains have caused some flooding. This is most likely the same Kliaz'ma that washed over the peasant festival back in June and in which Marfa swam for her life. As the two armies link up, the khan and the Russian prince vie with one another to see who is faster.
The Russian prince recalls an event in the previous winter in which the church tried to reconcile him with his rival brother. The wintry church is the great Dmitriev Cathedral in Vladimir, built in 1194-1197. You can just barely make out the remarkable animal, vegetable and human figures carved in relief in the white stone outer walls of this ancient cathedral. These figures are taken to be themselves representatives of the combination of old pre-Christian "Scythian" motifs with Biblical themes.
Check these excellent photos of the church by Dan Waugh = [I] [I] [I] [I] [I] [I] [I] [I] [I] [I]. Here also are some of my close-ups of that cathedral = [I] [I] [I] [I] [I] [I] [I]
From within Dmitriev Cathedral, the sounds of the Orthodox mass spill into the snowy courtyard.
Two times later in this section of the film, the Russian prince flashes back to this treacherous "kissing of the cross" which he and his Tatar ally are now about to betray. The second flashback occurs as the Russian prince witnesses the Tatar humiliation of the captured prince's brother and family and receives from the Tatars the vestments of the now deposed brother's power. Look for the leaping Borzoi hound running beside the Tatar and Russian raiders within the walls of Vladimir. The city is all but defeated. Many have fled into a great cathedral, and now the Tatars begin to batter the main doors with a heavy ram. The sounds of the Orthodox mass can be heard again, now in the courtyard as the Tatar khan nervously walks his war horse back and forth in anticipation of breaking into the church. Steel yourself for what follows. Russian film makers do not sign agreements to do no harm to animals. A dying horse comes down a stairway and falls to the ground, bleeding to death. This is a disturbing and powerful scene. We may be more touched by this cruel death than by all the other film portrayals of human death. As the horse stumbles to its death, from the church we hear the most characteristic phrases from the Russian mass: Hospodi, pomilui, Hospodi, pomilui... [Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy...].
36. Raid, continued
I'M SORRY TO SAY THAT IT PICKS UP WITH THE DEATH OF THE HORSE AGAIN..... (Hospodi, pomilui).
Soon, we see inside the cathedral being rammed by the Tatar army. And we spy Andrei again. He is with a young blond woman. The actress is Tarkovsky's wife, and she is playing a paradigmatic Russian cultural role: the holy fool. She is a "durochka", not able to take care of herself, but in her naive simplicity representing something very dear to Russian tradition. Andrei has made himself her protector in earlier scenes, and now they are trapped together as the cathedral door breaks open. Andrei, the monk, the man of God, kills a warrior who threatens harm to durochka. What a scene, as the Tatar khan paces his horse around inside the cathedral, asking the Russian prince taunting questions about the holy images on the walls, most now burning. The brave and defiant Foma is tortured, molten lead is poured into his mouth, and he is dragged to his death by a stallion stampeded through the devastated streets of Vladimir.
The traitorous prince is beset with deep misgivings about this destructive adventure. He experiences the third of the flashbacks to the previous winter, the kissing of the cross in reconciliation with his brother, a reconciliation now thoroughly overturned. We watch the warriors strip the gilded roofs off the cathedrals and carry them away. Large white geese float from cathedral rooftops to the disordered streets below, all in slow motion.
Andrei and Durochka are still in the church and try to come to terms with what has just transpired.
50. Tatar's Wife
The final scene I have selected is four years later, the winter of 1412. It is a hard winter, and famine stalks the land. Andrei is heating large stones and trying to transfer them to wooden casks to heat water. Durochka is eating an old apple. The Tatar khan rides into the monastery with several of his warriors. They are in a playful mood. The khan feeds frozen meat to quarrelsome dogs. Durochka wants some too. What follows is one of the most intriguing "falling-in-love" scenes in all of filmdom. Andrei tries to intervene, but this situation is beyond his or just about any imaginable power to change. As the khan sweeps Durochka up behind his saddle and he and his warriors gallop out of the monastery courtyard through a roofed gateway, our time is up.
70. Andrei Rublev, "The Passion"