It’s easy to see why this film was banned by Soviet Russia. Its portrayal of Russia’s most renowned painter of religious icons is, despite a cryptic delivery, quite definitely approving of religious faith in a way bound to upset Bolshevik censors.
Almost nothing is known about the historical Rublev, so just about everything here is complete fiction and yet, given this complete freedom to invent, Tarkovsky does not go for a direct biography, nor the tale of an important episode in the life of the artist. Rather, he gives us a series of distinct episodes, the first two of which don’t feature him at all, except by mention in the second; in the second to last, he features almost incidentally, and the last is just a series of shots lingering over his (real surviving) works. In between, we see some stunning depictions of the violence of the birth of the Tsarist Russian state and the methods of art in the 14th Century – the forging of a church bell is a real wonder, even more awesome than a siege of a walled city!
The journey Rublev takes in these vignettes is one of arrogant gifted youth, through despairing resignation from the evils of the world, to reconnection with the world and his faith through watching someone else struggle with artistic creation.
This is a beautiful film, though mystifying; I wonder if it would speak to me more clearly if I shared a love of the icons, or the faith that gave rise to them.