Tracing the life of a renowned icon painter, the second feature by Andrei Tarkovsky vividly conjures the murky world of medieval Russia. This dreamlike and remarkably tactile film follows Andrei Rublev as he passes through a series of poetically linked scenes—snow falls inside an unfinished church, naked pagans stream through a thicket during a torchlit ritual, a boy oversees the clearing away of muddy earth for the forging of a gigantic bell—gradually emerging as a man struggling mightily to preserve his creative and religious integrity. Appearing here in the director’s preferred 185-minute cut as well as the version that was originally suppressed by Soviet authorities, the masterwork Andrei Rublev is one of Tarkovsky’s most revered films, an arresting meditation on art, faith, and endurance.
The Criterion Collection finally upgrades one of their earliest DVD titles, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, to Blu-ray in this two-disc set. The release presents Tarkovsky’s preferred 183-minute version along with the longer 205-minute cut, known as The Passion According to Andrei. Each version appears on their own respective dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The shorter version comes from a high-definition restoration scanned from 35mm internegative. The longer version unfortunately appears to be from an old master and might be an upscale (not entirely sure). Both are presented with 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes.
It shouldn’t be a big surprise but of the two versions the shorter one, which is an actual high-definition presentation, is the better looking of the two. I suspect the master is an older one: grain is fine but not great, looking a bit muddled in places and contrast, while generally okay, can look a bit dark. But outside of that it is such an enormous improvement over Criterion’s previous non-anamorphic DVD, which was just fuzzy looking mess. Details are far sharper here for the most part (there can be a fuzziness to some longer shots but I feel that has to do with the photography, or the elements at least), the image moves far smoother, and even if contrast isn’t perfect it’s at least better than what I had seen previously. Some damage remains but it’s limited mostly to a spec of dirt here and there. The image is fine, ultimately, and I will certainly take it over my other options, but it’s just one of those cases where you know it could be better and more film-like in the end.
The longer version is a real let down. I did a comparison with Criterion’s original DVD and they look extremely similar, with the same fuzzy look, off contrast, and exact same print flaws. I’m actually unsure whether this is a true high-definition presentation or a standard-definition upscale because, truth be told, it manages to still look way better than the original DVD in terms of definition, and there are moments where details do pop rather impressively. Despite that the image is still quite fuzzy, with horrible contrast levels (dark scenes can be washed out like with the old DVD) and there is still a heavy amount of damage, no further restoration looking to have been done (again, damage looks to be the same in comparison to the old DVD). Subtitles are also burned in, which wasn’t the case with the DVD, so that further throws me a little. So while it does look better than upscaling the DVD on your televisions (which looks awful I should stress) this one could definitely look better.
Both films present their respective Russian audio tracks in lossless PCM 1.0 mono. Neither one is stellar by an means, but the track for the shorter version is the better one. It has a hollow sound but it’s still clean enough and doesn’t present any glaring issues.
The track for the longer version is a bit more problematic, coming off a bit edgier with some more obvious background noise. Further restoration doesn’t sound to have been done.
Age ultimately limits both.
Criterion’s previous DVD, a port of their original LaserDisc, wasn’t a jam-packed edition by any means but it had a few noteworthy supplements, though Criterion only ports one. The most notable aspect to this release is that it does contain both the 183-minute cut (on disc one) and the extended 205-minute cut (on disc two). It has been assumed Tarkovsky actually preferred the shorter cut, which is more than likely why it’s the version that received the more vigorous restoration.
All other supplementary material is then found on the first disc with the shorter cut. The biggest addition (and a bit of a surprise) is the inclusion of Tarkovsky’s short student film, The Steamroller and the Violin. The 45-minute film follows a young violin player with a strict upbringing who befriends a steamroller operator. It’s a simple premise but it manages to convey a lot through its visuals and still come off quite poignant. It doesn’t look to have been restored at all, though, presenting a lot of damage and dirt, but otherwise it looks fine.
Criterion then includes some archival production footage, first with the 19-minute The Three Andreis, produced in 1966. It provides some behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, but it’s most invaluable material features Tarkovsky talking about his intentions with the film along with footage of him in the editing room. This is then followed by On the Set of “Andrei Rublev”, which features 5-minutes’ worth of silent footage.
A newer documentary is also found here, the 29-minute Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev”: A Journey, featuring actor Nikolai Burlyaev, cinematographer Vadim Yusov, Tarkovsky’s personal assistant Olga Surkova, film critic Dmitri Salynsky, and scholar Vida T. Johnson. Despite the short length and the breadth of the material it manages to cover everything on the film’s production in great depth, from original idea to its eventual release (after various delays). There is a surprising amount of detail, including a lot about the actual construction of the script, which changed quite a bit along the way, and we also learn about the aspects that government officials took offence to.
Film scholar Robert Bird next chimes in and manages to, on his own, fill in the academic angle this release needs. Running 37-minutes he talks about Andrei Rublev the artist and how he is presented in the film, talks about certain stories and legends as they are presented in the film (the flying segment for example) and then talks about the two versions of the film that are included in this release, what sequences were cut, and how the edits change the structure of the film.
Only one supplement gets ported over from the previous DVD, and that is the select-scene commentary by Harvard film professor Vlada Petric. On the original DVD it was presented over the main feature, though it only covered 54-minutes’ worth of the film so you’d have to jump through it to get to the commentary moments. It’s now presented as a separated video feature that only shows the sequences Petric speaks over (though the footage is pulled from the 205-minute cut). It’s an okay track, not one of Criterion’s better ones, as Petric talks about Tarkovsky’s use of images, his use of the camera, the use of “interiors/exteriors” (this section lasting longest) and the techniques he uses not only in this film but his other ones as well. He falls into the trap of just reiterating what we’re seeing but since this film and the original DVD was my first foray into the world of Tarkovsky I found this commentary quite helpful the first time I listened to it. I just wish it was more in-depth and covered the span of the film (though maybe by someone other than Petric, who can be a little on the dry side.) Since it’s relatively short it’s painless.
The last significant feature is a visual essay called Inventing “Andrei Rublev”, created by filmmaker Daniel Raim and narrated by LA Times film critic Justin Chang. Chang reads from Tarkovsky’s notes/journal entries on the film, explaining the director’s intentions and his concerns with the film. Of particular concern to Tarkovsky was that he didn’t want the film’s setting to feel like an antique, and that he wanted it to feel alive and of the moment. The Janus Films rerelease trailer then closes off the supplements. Criterion does not carried over from the DVD is an interactive timeline, along with excerpts from a documentary called Andrei Tarkovsky: Poet of the Cinema.
The release comes in a 2-disc digipak with a fold-out poster insert. Criterion reuses J. Hoberman’s essay found in the insert for their previous DVD edition, followed by a reprinting of a 1962 essay by Tarkovsky about how to represent the artist in the film.
Though some material didn’t make it (though it’s all covered somewhat in the other supplements) this is still a nicely stacked edition that offers some valuable insight into the film and its production.
Though the supplements are great and getting two versions of the film is most welcome, there is a tinge of disappointment: the 205-minute version reuses a very old (possibly standard-definition) master while the shorter 183-minute version uses what is obviously an older high-definition master (though thankfully it looks pretty solid). It could be better, but after 20 years or settling with the original Criterion DVD, any improvement is welcome!