I admit that I approached this film in more or less the same way I would approach reading The Faerie Queen: more (much more) interested in having seen it than in seeing it. There are classics which I think I should read (or hear or view) for their historical significance, but don't really expect to enjoy. This was one of them.
Five or six years ago (at a guess), it was shown on Turner Classic Movies and I recorded it. Since it's almost three and a half hours long, I didn't want to watch it all in one sitting. So I watched thirty or forty minutes of it, then stopped it. But later when I tried to resume I discovered that the DVR apparently can't handle files that big. I gave up and put the DVD on my Netflix queue. It didn't work its way to the top till several weeks ago.
In the meantime I had seen Tarkovsky's Stalker, and didn't really like it very much overall, its reputation notwithstanding (see comments here). In that position it joined Solaris, which I had seen maybe ten years ago and also found disappointing--and, to tell the truth, somewhat dull. Also mysterious, but, as with Stalker, not attractive enough to make me want to dig into the mystery. So I was pretty well positioned to conclude that I am not a Tarkovsky fan, and therefore not especially looking forward to three and a half hours of his work. The fact that Andrei Rublev is a loose account of the life of a Russian iconographer of the 14th-15th centuries did not add excitement to the prospect: an edifying but somewhat dull history and/or art lesson, perhaps?
But I was surprised again, in the opposite direction. I had expected to like the others more than I did. I liked this one more than I had expected, and rather more than the others. I don't want to overstate that. I do not love it, and I'm not sure I'll want to see it again, for reasons I'll mention in a moment. But it was rewarding.
It consists of eight separate episodes, and a sort of prologue. I got off to a bit of a bad start with the prologue, and with the first episode; to be more precise, a somewhat baffling start. The prologue involves a group of men trying to launch a hot-air balloon while in imminent danger of some sort of attack. There's no explanation of when or where or why this is happening, though since the balloon seems to be made of animal skins I suppose it is nowhere near modern times. The balloon, carrying one man, finally gets into the air just as the attackers arrive. The passenger has an exciting but short flight. And that's the end of that. In light of the entire film, I conjecture that this is some sort of parable about art and artists, but I don't know.
The movie proper begins with several monks, of whom Andrei Rublev is one, leaving a monastery in dissatisfaction, headed for Moscow where they hope to get work as icon painters. I'm going to describe this next bit as it appeared to me:
The monks are caught in a downpour and ask for shelter in a ramshackle building in which several dozen people are sitting and standing around. They are being amused by a man who leaps around and sings satirical songs about the Boyars. This goes on for a while. Some soldiers arrive on horseback. They enter the building, grab the entertainer, drag him outside, and slam his head into a tree, leaving him either dead or unconscious. They smash a musical instrument which I presume belongs to the entertainer. The soldiers sling the man's limp body over the saddle of a horse and leave.
The first Russian film I ever saw, apart from Potemkin when I was in college, opened with a young boy seeing his father crushed by a falling tree and ended with that same boy, now a man, being brained with an axe. That's about all I remember of it and I don't have any idea what the name of it was. I saw it with a friend and as I recall our opinion of it didn't come to much more than"Well, that was really Russian."
So after the prologue and the first episode I figured--I feared--that I was dealing with a similar work in Andre Rublev. And I did continue to be confused at times by what was going on--who people were, why they were doing what they were doing, and so on. But a coherent picture did take shape around the theme of Rublev's artistic vocation and attains its fullness in the final episode, "The Bell," which is not really about Rublev at all. It involves the very reckless pledge of a teenaged boy to direct the casting of an enormous bell. By "enormous" I mean that the mouth of it is at least ten feet wide. He is the son of a famous bell-maker who has just died, and the boy asserts that his father left with him the secret knowledge essential to the process, and that he will undertake the job himself. It is reckless because he will die a very horrible death if he does not succeed. I'm not going to say how that comes out, of course, in case you haven't seen it. I'll just say that I've sometimes wondered how such feats were accomplished, and that seeing something of how it was (presumably) done was something close to awe-inspiring.
So: all in all, a fascinating, thought-provoking work from the sort of literary point of view, and moreover, visually impressive, often very beautiful: a rather important aspect of a visual medium, and one in which I thought the other Tarkovsky films I've seen fell considerably short.
I'd like to see it again. And yet, as I said, I'm not sure I will. That's mainly because Episode VI was so hard to watch. It's called "The Raid" and it depicts the pillaging of a town all too convincingly. It was pretty disturbing and I'm not sure I want to go through that again. I suppose I could always skip it.
Original theatrical poster (from Wikipedia)