Andrei Rublev purports to be a biopic of the eponymous 15th century icon painter who was alive during a period of mad, murderous strife (even by Russian standards) - but who somehow rose above the brutality of his times to produce some of the greatest ever Russian art.
In fact, this isn't a biography - at least not in conventional terms. While we follow his fortunes, we learn little about the character of Rublev, beyond his disgust and dismay at the barbarity surrounding him - the endless fighting between rival princes and vicious Tartar incursions. This isn't one person's story at all, rather it's a vast and panoramic tableau vivant of an entire country, as refracted through the consciousness of the Everyman artist.
With its seemingly arbitrary, episodic structure and happenstance characterisation, the film seems like a randomised, horrific Stations Of The Cross. And what terrifying and sensual scenes these are. A man is crucified while his wife weeps at his feet, pagans frolic naked and run amok on St John's Night, a town is ransacked and its priest bestially tortured by the cruel Tartars. Rarely have such lurid, epic scenes of sensual cruelty, spiritual outrage and ordinary madness been shown with such candour, and with such beauty - Brueghel and Dostoevsky were hardly more vivid.
Tarkovsky treats the two great topics of Russian art - God and the soul of Mother Russia - with superbly honed cinematic intelligence, and almost hallucinatory imagination. The result is a mind-expanding mixture of madness, Christ-like simplicity and human venality which is absolutely overwhelming.