You gotta build the bell before you can ring it, Andrei Tarkovsky takes you through it. A dash of Keaton kicks off the mysterious prologue, Icarus as a balloonist suspended by rags until the inevitable crash. "My working tools are humiliation and anguish," says Borges, the artist here is the eponymous icon painter (Anatoly Solonitsyn) in medieval Russia, out of the monastery and into the tundra. Everyone’s a critic, "there’s no awe, no faith, no simplicity" to his works, in the woods his mentor Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev) shrugs and brushes away the ants crawling on his legs. For the wandering auteur, to create is to continuously search for the sacred in a bestial terrain. (Participation versus contemplation is the theme, fire briefly burns Rublev’s robes as pagan carnality swirls around him.) The landscape is battered, frozen, flooded, bloodied; wildlife pulses throughout, one goose is squashed in the swamp and another surveys the Tatar atrocities from high above. "Strange things happen in Russia," a warlord coolly declares while a noisy torture unfolds just out of the frame. Tarkovsky merges dour meditation with barnburner technique in this overwhelming parable, a bleak widescreen scrutinized by an exuberantly tracking-craning-dollying camera. The caustic jester (Rolan Bykov), cooled by rain after some arduous clowning; the fellow monk (Ivan Lapikov), lost in envy and found in penitence; the holy fool (Irma Raush) carried away on horseback and the shrimpy bell-caster (Nikolai Burlyayev) driven by lunatic inspiration, all pieces of an ever-widening fresco. Crucifixions in the ice and eye-gougings in the forest, Dovzhenko’s wounded equine, the Prince’s kiss of betrayal (Ivan the Terrible, Part Two). Silenced by barbarism, Rublev is revived by obsessive craftsmanship and hears the country’s voice in the giant tolling bell. The honeyed collage of paintings is from Lust for Life, though the closing image could have only come from Tarkovsky’s dreams. Ingmar Bergman famously saw it by chance and paid it the greatest compliment: "Someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say!" Cinematography by Vadim Yusov. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce