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A Redemptive Dream of the Bad Old Days: Nostalgia, History, and Materiality in Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev”

May 3, 2020

Andrei Rublev DVD Cover.jpeg

[This article was adapted from my dissertation, Reentry Shock: Historical transition and temporal longing in the cinema of the Soviet Thaw, Greg Blake Miller, University of Oregon, 2010).]

Rolan Bykov is sweating. Leaping, spinning, standing on his hands, kicking a drum with his feet, singing things that ought not be sung in polite company.  Fortunately, he is not in polite company, but on a film set, in a crude log hut, performing for actors dressed as peasants, having great fun describing the sexual misadventures of the 15th century Russian nobility. The film is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, a meditation on the life and times of Russia’s greatest medieval icon painter. Bykov plays the role of the skomorokh, the itinerant jester whose rough stock-in-trade is the profane leavening of a heavy life. His motion is elemental; it stirs the stillness like a hard spring wind; in medieval huts, as on Soviet film sets, the anarchic spirit is an indispensable and dangerous thing. The jester rests, accepts water from his grateful audience. Outside a window frame, rain falls hard upon the countryside. Three monks have entered for shelter; one will betray the jester. Henchmen of the Grand Prince will arrive, pull the jester outside, bash his head into a tree trunk. He will lose his freedom. He will lose his tongue. The film will go unseen by the Russian public for five years; the Soviet authorities will consider it too blunt in its presentation of a cruel age. In 1969, the film will show at Cannes and win the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize. By 1971, the authorities will relent, and Andrei Rublev will make its way onto Soviet screens and begin its long ascent into the Russian cinematic canon.

Bykov would later say that he saw in Tarkovsky’s works a nostalgia “not aimed at the past” (Bykov, 1990, p. 155). What can this possibly mean? Isn’t nostalgia all about the past? And what kind of nostalgia can one attribute to a director whose vision of the past includes such things as the removal of jesters’ tongues? Wouldn’t this be the opposite of nostalgia?  Bykov’s words, however, are not to be dismissed. Tarkovsky’s cinematic nostalgia, he said, replaced longing for a lost past with “a yearning for the future, whose roots he sought as an artist interested in history.” Like any good jester, Bykov gave conventional thinking a sly twist, and in doing so offered a gateway to a deeper understanding of Tarkovsky as a director, Andrei Rublev as a film, and the position of both filmmaker and film in Soviet culture.

In this paper I will take up Bykov’s invitation and analyze the ways in which Andrei Rublev encourages and rewards a creative reconsideration of the very concept of nostalgia. In the first section, I outline the film’s narrative and point out the crucial questions it raises about the nature of hope and longing. The second section introduces and develops Svetlana Boym’s typology of nostalgia. Next, I discuss the conventional portrayal of Rublev as a historical figure and the film’s challenge to that portrayal. Finally, building on the ideas of Henri Bergson, I explore the ways in which the materiality of the film’s images embodies an ambiguous, open-ended, and highly spiritual brand of nostalgic longing. … [READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE.]

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