July 28th, 2020

Death Chess

A Semblance of Creation

How do you weigh the value of freedom, the effectiveness of a leader, the spiritual enrichment of creativity? Andrei Takovsky's 1966 film, Andrei Rublev, about a real life mediaeval icon painter, shows how elusive answers can be when it comes to any of these topics. Tarkovsky's slow tracking shots, dispassionately revealing volatile dioramas, here dwell in a grim, grey, feudal landscape and in the shadows of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It's beautiful and eloquently invites the viewer to troubling contemplations.

A series of stories are presented in the same area over a period of 24 years. Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) generally seems to be a passive observer. Over the course of the three hour movie, he meets a jester (Rolan Bykov) who boldly mocks the ruling class--and is punished. He meets a group of naked pagans, a master icon painter, the young son of a bell maker, a young woman driven mad apparently by syphilis, and a Tatar invasion.

It's strange to see an action sequence in a Tarkovsky movie but it's an effective one. He switches between shots of masses in chaos to focused violence, employing creative compositions and sound, as when one young man is killed by the roadside and falls against a tree saw, the object making its peculiar song as the boy falls dying against it.

In one way or another, each story contemplates the value of human works and philosophy. The master icon painter, Theophanes (Nikolai Sergeyev) visits Andrei from beyond the grave after the Tatar invasion and, like Death in The Seventh Seal, can tell Andrei very little about the other side. But Theophanes does reiterate how beautiful are the icons Andrei painted.

The final episode follows Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), the son of the bellmaker, who joins a band of workers making a bell when he promises them his father has passed down the secrets of the art to only him. He's put in charge despite the incredulity of the workers when he asks them to find a certain kind of clay and then to avoid applying a second layer of it to a mould. It's not clear how much the boy is bullshitting but he's clearly bullshitting at least a little bit.

He's quite proud of himself for it, too, even ordering his friend to be whipped for defying him. But then it starts to torment him as the value of his actions seem to be either based on wild luck or something else. It's not hard to see what troubles him--if he can get away with this, what are other people getting away with?

Andrei Rublev is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1378

At last returning guards relieve the field.
In glasses mashed against the nose we saw.
The tangled grass concedes a verdant yield.
With drops of gum we wrote another law.
A ventured question shows without a dot.
Discovered cakes commend the corner shop.
We whittled minds to think a single thought.
A stumble jump became a steady hop.
The tired cheese was lounging 'cross the bread.
Abundant noodles crammed beneath the teeth.
For pasta lips were painted cherry red.
The noodles make a weird and soggy wreath.
The boiled time reduced the steam about.
The longer day reduced the night to doubt.