A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, March 21, 2016

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) revisited


Has any filmmaker ever made more eloquent use of the widescreen format than Tarkovsky does in this film? It was a process developed by Hollywood to help win its war with television -- bigger naturally assumed to be better. In Hollywood, it usually went hand-in-hand with color, and although the various widescreen processes -- Cinerama, Cinemascope, VistaVision, etc. -- were used in black-and-white films, they often feel out of place today. A case in point: The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens, 1959), which won an Oscar for the cinematography of William C. Mellor, but which seems to cry out for a format less expansive than CinemaScope, in which the Frank family's attic seems far too spacious. Andrei Rublev was filmed in a process called Sovscope, which like CinemaScope used anamorphic lenses to produce a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. (Before the widescreen revolution of the 1950s, the aspect ratio of movies was typically 1.375:1. Today's movies are usually either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1. The standard HDTV aspect ratio is 1.77:1.) But enough techspeak. What I noticed in this viewing of Andrei Rublev is how artfully Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov work with the expanse of the screen, not shying away from closeups but also doing extraordinary movement with the camera. One of the earliest scenes in the film takes place in the barn in which Rublev (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and his fellow artist-monks take shelter from the rain. We are given an astonishing 360-degree pan inside the barn, circling from the monks to the other denizens of the shelter and back to the monks, a study in faces that establishes one of the film's major subjects: the nature of Russian humanity, which becomes an abiding concern of Rublev's. (I think there's a witty acknowledgment of the nature of widescreen in that the peep-hole cut into the wall of the bar seems to have the same aspect ratio as the film.) And in the concluding sequence, there is a magnificent pan from the gates of the walled city of Vladimir below and the emerging procession up to the structure that holds the newly cast bell, where Boriska (Nikolay Burlyaev) waits anxiously. To my mind, the only section in which Tarkovsky is thwarted by the widescreen process is in the final ecstatic survey of Rublev's work, the only part of the film in color. The paintings are more vertical than horizontal, so we're deprived of some of their aspiring height. I couldn't help watching Andrei Rublev again, because as I said in my first blog entry about the film, I dozed a little while watching it that time: It is, to be sure, a slow and challenging film. But if there is any three-and-a-half-hour film that more repays frequent rewatching, I want to know what it is.  

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