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Andrei rublev, the masterpiece of the great Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, opens with a failed attempt to conquer God. A man attached to a hot-air balloon floats to the upper domes of an imposing church, the tallest structure that a mob of fifteenth-century monks and peasants will ever see in their lives. As he drifts upward from the scrum, the pilot’s infernal engine brings him to eye-level with the stony visages of Jesus and Mary.

Towering over the great building’s gates, the faces radiate quiet certainty about how this act of arrogance will end. As we will learn during three hours spent in the chaos of late-medieval Russia, the landscape of castles and peasant villages below our balloonist is stricken with famine, pestilence, foreign invasion, tyranny, an intense distrust of art and a related disrespect for human dignity, a corrupt religious establishment, and an elite that actively hates the society it rules. But for an ecstatic moment, the man sees it all as only God can: Russia as a glorious infinity, vast with potential, tranquil even in crisis. The pilot’s mad laughter transforms into a scream as his unlikely aircraft plunges into a riverbank and the first-person view of the camera abruptly merges with the unfeeling earth.

Did the Soviet censors of the mid-1960s know what they were watching? Roughly an hour into the film, the movie’s titular icon painter falls captive to a coven of nature-worshippers as they prepare for a pagan sex ritual. In an unmistakable echo of the Soviet regime’s notorious treatment of its perceived enemies, the leader of this godless commune ties the artist-monk Andrei to a post and interrogates him. “It is a sin to walk around naked like that,” says a defiant Andrei. “This is the night when everyone must love,” the witch replies.

Then she accuses Andrei, a stand-in for Christian society, of being her persecutor: “Do you think it’s easy to live in fear?” Andrei replies, “You fear because you live without love, or your love is sinful and bestial instead of brotherly.” It is as if Tarkovsky were speaking directly to the regime goons he knew would be watching his film. The witch answers the painter with the icy authoritarian logic of those who believe they can impose a new vision of human nature until the lie becomes true. “No matter,” she almost hisses. “It is love.”

Eventually the censors did figure out what they were watching. Andrei Rublev was released in the Soviet Union in 1971, seven years after its completion, and then only in expurgated form. Tarkovsky likely destroyed the negatives of a second, half-filmed historical epic, shot in the late 1970s, because he knew the authorities wouldn’t allow its criticisms of Soviet atheism. Finding it impossible to work on his own terms, Tarkovsky left the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, at the tail end of a cinematic hot streak. Between 1962 and 1979, he had made Ivan’s Childhood, one of the most beloved Russian World War II films; Andrei Rublev, a vast historical epic; Solaris, a monument of existential science fiction based on a novel by the visionary Polish writer Stanisław Lem; Mirror, a groundbreaking nonlinear autobiographical experiment; and Stalker, an apocalyptic road movie adapted from a novel by the Soviet writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

Each film’s protagonist confronts eternal sources of meaning that exist beyond human systems. Taken alongside his two post-exile works, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s Soviet filmography is a drama of faith in resistance to internal and external pressures that amount to a conspiracy against the soul itself. Tarkovsky began to abandon this faith only when he had left his oppressive homeland, at which point those pressures intensified. 

But he knew they would intensify. There is no final freedom in his films, no satisfying answer to any question that actually matters. With an arresting absence of lightness or quirk, Tarkovsky plunges viewers into a world that is menaced by higher powers: the mysterious godlike force contained within the Zone in Stalker, a planet-sized alien brain in Solaris, memory and death in Mirror, God and art in Rublev. In Tarkovsky, transcendence exacts severe costs from the people who seek it. His films are awash in puddles, flooded rooms, rotting wood, and endless miles of mud, but equally replete with religious symbols, intimations of the apocalypse, lingering close-ups of devotional art, and holy madmen.

“Live between forgiveness and your own torment,” the ghost of the icon painter Theophanes the Greek orders his former apprentice Andrei, who becomes a numb witness to the carnage of the invading Tatar hordes and their Russian coconspirators during Rublev’s climactic battle scene. Tarkovsky’s movies are about both earth and heaven, the state of being trapped between the tangible and the infinite.

Tarkovsky’s engagement with religious themes made him subversive in his own time and place. He recognized that pagan love, the love of the communist interrogator, couldn’t possibly be real. But it is his belief in the immutability of the human dilemma that makes his films such necessary viewing for us now. In Tarkovsky, we get an unvarnished view of our shared condition, with no petty agendas to soften or distort anything. He looked with suspicion on the supposed triumph of science, the comforts of personal empowerment, and the redemptive potential of any quest for perfect earthly justice. None of these modern innovations, and nothing within the individual or shared agency of human beings, could resolve our predicament in living between forgiveness and inner torment, a reality that secularism and state atheism could do nothing to change.

Tarkovsky didn’t seem to think that religious belief could change this basic state of things, either—but at least a believer in God hadn’t invested his entire being in a destructive and ­soul-deadening set of lies. In Tarkovsky’s films, the inner reckoning with cosmic forces, and the awareness of their power over us, becomes the only path toward truth, or toward something that can begin to resemble hope.

It is strange that a Soviet artist should have become one of the twentieth century’s great portrayers of spiritual struggle—but it is perhaps not so strange that this should have become Tarkovsky’s eventual project. His father, Arseny Tarkovsky, was a war hero and poet whose work was suppressed in the late 1940s before he settled into a frustrating life as a translator. Anna Akhmatova once praised the elder Tarkovsky as the only one of her contemporaries who was “completely his own self, completely independent.” In Mirror, in which Arseny reads from his own poetry and serves as a kind of secondary narrator, it is possible to appreciate what Akhmatova was talking about: His poems swing between rich abstract imagery and a kind of mystical sparseness, punctuated with references to epiphanies, sacred altars, and immortality. The elder Tarkovsky was an artist who objected to the spiritual vacancy of Stalin’s regime. In the post-Stalin environment in which Andrei (born in 1932) was to work, it would be safer to test the boundaries of creative expression than it had been in his father’s time.

Poignantly, given that he served a government that believed it was perfecting human society, almost every film Tarkovsky made deals with the impossibility of wish fulfillment. In Stalker, the last of his Soviet films, a social outcast—a religious dissident of a certain kind—leads two clients into “the Zone,” a mysterious wilderness inside a military cordon. Within the Zone is a room that makes a person’s deepest desire come true. Through mechanisms and criteria that are never explained, the Zone judges the worthiness of whoever approaches the room and decides whether those seeking it will live or die along the way. The military-scale protection of this sublime power serves as a possible metaphor for the Soviet attempt to keep religion itself under quarantine. The journey to the room becomes a struggle with a capricious god and with one’s own faith in the enterprise. “At each moment it’s just as we’ve made it,” the Stalker tells his charges, a writer and a professor whose names we never learn. “Everything here depends on us.” The Stalker quotes the Gospels and dedicates spontaneous prayers to an invisible, indeterminate force that may or may not be God: “May everything come true. May they believe . . . may they . . . become as helpless as children, for softness is great and strength is worthless.”

The writer and the professor, suddenly terrified at discovering what their innermost desires might really be, refuse to enter the room that they have risked their lives to reach. To the Stalker—who has himself never entered the room—this is a crushing act of unbelief. It is up to his wife to remind him what a curse it would be actually to get what one really wants. “If there were no sorrow in our lives it wouldn’t be better,” she says, in the film’s final lines. “It would be worse. Because then there’d be no happiness either. And there’d be no hope.” What is true for individuals is true for regimes and ideological systems. For one single human, to be fully repaired is already a kind of horror. To repair all humans would be unimaginably darker.

Tarkovsky’s films are often built around characters whose experience of a higher power comes through suffering the misfortune of getting what they really want. In Ivan’s Childhood, a twelve-year-old Russian spy—almost a Christ figure, a pure being whose soul remains unblemished in the midst of great suffering—is permitted by his Red Army handlers to make one last, ill-fated mission behind German lines. Andrei Rublev finally becomes an artistic genius after a decade-long vow of silence, occasioned by his first-hand view of the depravity and corruption of Russian society. Kelvin, in Solaris, is tortured through fulfillment of one of the most primal of wishes, the reversal of death. He travels to a remote space station orbiting a planet-sized alien brain: He believes that science can help achieve human contact with this so-far unreachable intelligence. Instead, the alien produces a homunculus of his dead wife, a quasi-resurrection that threatens to strand Kelvin even deeper in his guilt over her suicide.

In Mirror, the narrator—a fictionalized Tarkovsky—repeatedly dreams about being a child at the door of his grandfather’s long-destroyed house in the Russian countryside and finding it impossible to enter. By the film’s end he is able to penetrate this sanctum, and in so doing he recaptures some essential element of his being—but at the heavy and necessary cost of realizing that it is too late for him to change much of anything about his own life. The room in Stalker is a more literal expression of the locked dream house in Mirror, but the trio arrives at its threshold only to find that they fear their true selves too much to proceed.

In Nostalghia, the exiled writer—another Tarkovsky avatar—swallows poison and then carries out his goal of completing a ritual, dreamed of by a local mystic, of taking a candle across the baths of St. Catherine in Bagno Vignoni just before he drops dead. “My whole life has been one long wait for this,” says Alexander in The Sacrifice, as the missiles of nuclear doomsday rain down. Alexander is the last of Tarkovsky’s cinematic selves, as The Sacrifice was released just before the director’s death from cancer in Paris in 1986. At last, it is the filmmaker’s longed-for Day of Judgment, referred to in some way in each one of his movies—the ultimate fantasy made real.

Tarkovsky’s movies should make for discouraging viewing, given how doomed their protagonists tend to be. And yet his films—or at least the first five, made in the Soviet Union—are not oppressively bleak. True, their sources of optimism are not the ones contemporary American viewers are conditioned to expect, steeped as we are in a culture that is drearily unspiritual, stiflingly positivistic in its view of progress, and convinced that art is a junior partner to partisan politics. The light in Tarkovsky comes from the possibility that the sublime terror of a higher power can eventually shock us out of the frivolity and delusions that rule us. His movies portray faith as a path out of unreason.

It is Andrei Rublev, the most overtly religious of Tarkovsky’s films, that deals most extensively with the torment of the transcendent. The film is structured as a journey toward true belief. Andrei is talented, Kirill (a fellow monk and the budding artist’s spiritual mentor) tells Theophanes the Greek in the opening sequence of the movie, before Andrei has been introduced as a distinct character. But: “He is lacking fear—and faith! The faith that comes from one’s heart.”

Years later, in 1408, Andrei is commissioned to paint a church mural of the Last Judgment, an assignment whose politics are as noxious as anything a Soviet artist would have been forced into in Tarkovsky’s time. He is hired to decorate a new cathedral by a regional duke, little better than a chieftain or warlord, who is using Andrei’s skills and the local religious authorities as pawns in a power struggle with his brother. Eventually, that rivalry will culminate in the sack of the city of Vladimir and one of the most brutal depictions of medieval warfare in film. But even before that horror, Andrei faces both an artistic and a religious crisis. He discovers that he cannot bring himself to depict the suffering of sinners in hell, the gruesome scenes of torture and flame. “Smoke is not the point,” he pleads, in a scene in which the tight camera angles conceal a netherworld of open and endless meadow, suggesting an inner agitation that cuts off access to self-expression.

So, his assistant asks, what is the point of the Last Judgment? “I don’t know!” thunders a defeated Andrei. His answer, in a subsequent scene, is almost blasphemous: The Last Judgment will be a celebration, a depiction of spiritual ecstasy rather than doom. The artist wanders into a rainstorm, half-demented. “Leave him alone,” a more senior monk instructs his apprentices. “Let this servant of God repent.”

In the next phase of the film, Andrei’s failure to imagine hell gives way to Tarkovsky’s success in bringing hell on earth to life. The artist experiences the destruction of Vladimir, shown on screen as a mania of fire and wanton cruelty, as the most crushing of his life’s spiritual crises. Andrei kills an attacking soldier while sheltering with the surviving townsfolk in Vladimir’s desecrated cathedral. It is an act of violence that is necessary, even heroic in context. But for Andrei, the battle and his own taking of human life are an unbearable glimpse into things as they really are—into his own true being, the inevitable flimsiness of human society, and the ultimate impossibility of fully knowing God. He takes a vow of silence for the rest of his life.

The film’s final sequence is a fifteen-year flash-forward from the perspective of a teenager who has taken on the dangerous task of casting a church bell for a local duke—if the bell doesn’t ring, Boris, son of a bellmaker killed in an ongoing famine, knows the potentate will slaughter him and his entire team. Only a director of Tarkovsky’s audacity could produce a Soviet classic about artists toiling under the threat of execution.

Boris hunts in vain for the perfect clay in which to cast this life-or-death work of art. He finds it as if by accident, right as Andrei arrives on the edge of town, gazing in silence as Boris rejoices in the wet ground. When the bell dramatically clangs to life—in the presence of seemingly the entire medieval Russian power structure, and after a crane-shot fugue of molten steel and bubbling earth that ranks among the most astonishing sequences in all of cinema—Boris collapses into the muck and begins to sob. Andrei cradles him and ends his vow of silence. “Let’s work together,” the monk says. “You’ll be casting bells, and I’ll be painting icons.”

Next comes another flash-forward: The black-and-white filmstock turns to color, and viewers are treated to a highlight reel of actual Andrei ­Rublev icons—Mary overpowered at the foot of the manger, followed by the unearthly eyes of the risen Christ, blazing from church walls five centuries after the artist’s death. After wars and famines, after facing off with pagans and priests and Russian warlords, and after serving the evils of earthly political power, Andrei can finally see and express the reality of God as fully as any human being ever has. It is the closest thing a Tarkovsky movie has to an unambiguously happy ending.

That a landmark of religious cinema like Andrei Rublev was made in a country constitutionally opposed to religion—the Soviet Union banned the practice of Judaism, officially promoted atheism, and kept what remained of the church under its total control—beggars understanding. Rublev is courageous for a related reason: It is the Tarkovsky film that most directly addresses questions of censorship and of art’s relationship with political power. In an early scene, a jester is abducted by agents of the local tyrant, one of whom smashes the prisoner’s lute to pieces. “I am glad I am untalented, so that I can be honest and innocent before God!” declares Kirill, fuming against the greed of his fellow monks. Andrei Tarkovsky, like Andrei Rublev, believed the creative impulse could break through even the most thorough and thuggish architectures of control.

The filmmaker proved himself right. This greatest of all Soviet movies is a paean not to dialectical materialism nor to the Soviet system, but to God and artistic expression, the things that system was most eager to suppress or co-opt. Rublev asserts that God and art require one another in order to seem fully real, suggesting that an atheist or even merely a secular utopian tyrant has no choice but to suppress them in tandem. Sixty years later, and more than thirty years after the fall of communism, the paintings shown at the end of Rublev take on a new layer of meaning, since they now highlight yet another Soviet failure. Rublev’s frescoes are greater than any of the visual art that communism ever produced, and they will endure longer than anything the regime built to glorify itself.

The great irony of Tarkovsky’s career is that he made his two worst films after leaving the Soviet Union, escaping the censorship and coercion of the system in which he had always worked. Nostalghia, about an exiled Russian writer’s wanderings through Italy, often lapses into cut-rate Antonioni pastiche, and The Sacrifice, about a professor who lives through a nuclear doomsday that may or may not be a figment of his paranoia, is a confused Ingmar Bergman simulation without a single real human character in it. (I’d argue that the decline really begins with Stalker, which drifts into the haziness of pure allegory and lacks much of the urgency of its four predecessors.) The careful pacing of his Soviet films slows to the point of grinding boredom; the visual language of flooded interiors, isolated houses, long silences, and religious iconography becomes almost desperately repetitive. The two films lack narrative sharpness, as if Tarkovsky, now liberated, had no idea what he was supposed to say anymore.

Tarkovsky was self-aware enough to know what was happening to him. “You don’t understand anything about Russia,” Nostalghia’s exiled Andrei Gorchakov—yet another Andrei—sneers at his companion and would-be lover. “I would die if I never again saw my homeland,” he reads from a letter written by an exiled Russian musician who, like our fictional anti-hero, eventually committed suicide. Italy has never looked so dour: The piazzas are jagged and colorless, and the grand hotels almost disappear in shadow. For a Russian to be separated from Russia is a kind of living death, and this was so even during the social and economic collapse of the mid-1980s. In Tarkovsky’s case, departure and defection meant alienation from a formerly secure sense of artistic purpose. His Soviet films evoke the madness and exhilaration of believing in something beyond the ambient human vulgarity. In contrast, his two movies in exile are works of despair. Nostalghia ends in the sacrilege of two suicides; The Sacrifice culminates in a pointless and vaguely paganistic act of self-destruction.

Today, the assertion that artistic genius springs from one’s connection to home and country comes across as reactionary—or, even worse, nationalistic. When it’s a Russian creative giant under discussion, the suggestion that the artist acts as a channel for ineffable national greatness now seems tasteless or worse. In 2021, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross claimed that Tarkovsky was guilty of a “drift towards nationalist mysticism,” a politically fashionable misreading of the director’s career. Tarkovsky obviously lost something of himself when he left Russia, but this fact only shows how a great artist’s relationship with his homeland often defies easy political labeling. For Tarkovsky, the nation was inspiring precisely because it was a burden. Recognizably Russian paths to God and to self-destruction are hopelessly tangled in Tarkovsky’s films; in Rublev, Tarkovsky both depicts and defies a tyranny whose distinctly local characteristics he knew firsthand. “The Russian people are of one blood and one land . . . carrying their cross humbly, praying to God to give them strength,” muses the young Andrei Rublev before the disaster of Vladimir. Theophanes erupts in anger, charging that this nascent religious nationalism flirts with blasphemy. Sure enough, Andrei experiences the Vladimir atrocity as eye-opening proof that “we aren’t one people, one faith, one land.” The nation is another of Tarkovsky’s sacred phantoms, one of the higher powers that threatens to ruin whoever searches for it.

And yet we have no choice but to search. Scientific knowledge, political “progress,” perfect reason, perfect justice—all will produce their own monsters, and none will yield the answers we seek. “We don’t need other worlds,” one of the scientists orbiting Solaris remarks as the resurrected dead stalk the corridors of a creaking and empty space station. “We need a mirror.” Tarkovsky’s accomplishment is to show us that we will always need a mirror, no matter who we are, no matter what system we live under, no matter how much we think we know, no matter how certain we are of anything beyond our liberating cosmic smallness.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

Image by Festival de Cine Africano Tarifa Tánger - FCAT licensed by Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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