By Wayne Allensworth
The picture below, of Christ being led to a snowy Golgotha, is from a movie that, along with others from the film’s director, have often been chosen as among the hundred best ever produced. Rating movies can get complicated, but nevertheless this film belongs in any cinematic canon.
The director is Russian Andrey Tarkovsky. The film is his Andrey Rublev (1966) about a 15th century Russian Icon painter living at a time of plague and famine, as the Tatars ransack the country. Andrey eventually became “St. Andrey” as he was canonized centuries later.
In Tarkovsky’s great movie, Andrey struggles with his faith among the ashes and ruins, and tries to portray that faith in his works. Andrey Rublev is a movie about sin, faith, the possibility of redemption, and an artist’s struggle in a chaotic time (which is why many critics have seen Rublev as Tarkovsky struggling with the Soviet authorities). The film is profoundly anti-Soviet in its implications, and as with other Tarkovsky films, asserts that Christianity is inextricably connected to Russian civilization. Andrey Rublev ends with a series of icons painted by the master himself–the movie was shot in black and white, but the last segment is in color.
In Andrey Rublev, the Russian people collectively, for all their sins, are also the main protagonist of the movie. Andrey is an observer, a man who watches and learns. The scene of Christ’s being led to his crucifixion against a Russian scenery is emblematic of the country’s fate. The scene opens with Andrey and an elder talking about betrayal and sin, and the plagues that have ravaged the country. Then Andrey segues into a monologue on Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion, as Christ is led to that snowy Golgotha.
Someone once called Tarkovsky’s films “prayer as cinema.” It’s amazing to think he made this film in the Soviet Union in 1966—it took a while to have it shown generally (after one screening in 1966, it took five more years, and various cuts, to be released generally), but it is an example of the great art that Russian poets, writers, and film directors produced even under censorship.
Great films can be edifying and stimulating without being entertaining in the sense most people mean. And Andrey Tarkovsky’s films are like great Russian novels—ponderous and poetic. I think that part of Russian culture, the poetic sense, is what attracted me to it in the first place.
In the best of the America I have known and loved, there is a civic sense of the common good, of generosity and duty. In the best Russians I have known that sense is not civic or even dutiful, but personal and sacrificial.
You can watch the crucifixion sequence below. It’s in Russian, but there are subtitles:
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.