At least 15 years ago I was talking films (it’s generally a fail-safe filter) with a new acquaintance, whose favourite was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Shamefully, at the time I hadn’t seen a single Tarkovsky film and, even more shamefully, I’m not fully confident I’d even heard of him. So I jumped, admittedly somewhat belatedly, at the chance to make amends when the Abbeygate Picturehouse screened Andrei Rublev just before Christmas.
Tarkovsky’s 1966 film, loosely based on the life of the fifteenth century Russian icon painter, was voted joint second in a Guardian/Observer critics’ poll of ‘the greatest films ever made’ in October 2010. (For the curious it was beaten by Chinatown.) Add the 85 reviews on IMDB, where words such as ‘masterpiece’ crop up regularly, and I was expecting a corker.
So, having waited so long and after such a build-up, what did I think? It’s undoubtedly powerful, fascinating and challenging film-making. It’s also beautiful in the fullest sense – Tarkovsky doesn’t flinch from the ugliness and cruelty of medieval Russia. And, amazingly, at 3 hours (I saw the UK 2004 re-release – at 183 mins it’s one of the shorter versions) didn’t drag.
I admire, too, that he’s unafraid to deal with big subjects: the meaning of art and faith or the artist’s position in society. And I’d definitely be interested in reading up about his work. But, if you’re asking me if I liked it and would I hurry to another of his films, at the risk of having my Brownie film-buff badge ripped from my sleeve, well I’d have to say no.
However, I didn’t like Chinatown either, so what do I know? And don’t listen to me – here’s Ingmar Bergmann, writing in The Magic Lantern: “Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream… That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow?
Fellini, Kurosawa and Bunuel move in the same fields as Tarkovsky. Antonioni was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness. Melies was always there without having to think about it. He was a magician by profession.”
I could have kissed Bergmann for his description of Antonioni (sweet revenge for excruciating hours spent watching his films!) and it’s true, Tarkovsky is in a different league. But he’s a director who needs (and, I’m sure, rewards) more intellectual input than I gave on a snowy December afternoon. So don’t be put off – particularly if film theory is your bag. Check out the reviews on IMDB, many of which are brilliantly insightful, see the film and make up your own mind.