Savages on horseback lay siege to a Christian stronghold. They behead the men, kidnap the women and girls, and set the cathedral alight. “How can she be a virgin and a mother?” one of their leaders mockingly asks about an icon of Mary, while in the background his men stage an orgy of cruelty.
Elsewhere, dozens of bare-naked pagans run through darkened woods, their path to a literal orgy lit by their torches. When a monk calls on them to repent of sin, the pagans crucify him and carry on with their shameless rite (one of the pagans, a woman, rescues him from the cross and attempts unsuccessfully to seduce him). Meanwhile, the monk’s own order is beset with state repression, corruption, jealous rivalry, and profound spiritual doubt.
These scenes are from the 1966 Soviet masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, which I watched at the Film Society of Lincoln Center over the weekend in a magnificent new digital restoration. Yet Andrei Tarkovsky’s biopic of Russia’s greatest medieval iconographer is astonishingly relevant for our moment. Few could watch the gut-wrenching portrayal of the Tatar sack of Vladimir (in 1410) without being reminded of the recent Islamic State atrocities against indigenous Christian communities in Syria and Iraq. The pagan orgy, meanwhile, recalls our own repaganized sexual culture that celebrates underage drag queens and open polyamory. As for the degradations visited on the Russian church, including by churchman, these, too, have a contemporary analog in the Catholic abuse crisis.
The question posed by these scenes, and indeed by the movie as a whole, is this: How can civilization endure anti-civilizational calamities, both those inflicted by outsiders (barbarians and pagans) and those that arise from Western man’s own heart of darkness? How can faith endure these things? How can art? What about love?
To get his films made and screened, Tarkovsky had to fend off anti-civilizational forces in his own time and society. The spiritual themes that suffused his work were anathema in an officially Marxist state. Rublev, with its celebration of the artist’s world-historical mission and Russian Orthodoxy’s role as the repository of Russian national memory, was especially irksome for Soviet officials. Brezhnev hated it so much that he walked out midway through. Communist apparatchiks withdrew the film from consideration at the Cannes Film Festival and barred it from being screened domestically (they would relent and release it a few years later).
While Soviet ideology and the Soviet state withered away, Tarkovksy’s masterpiece endured. But Rublev doesn’t offer any reassuring certainties about the survival of art and civilization. For civilization to endure ages of madness, the film suggests, it takes a certain madness on the part of its partisans.
Boriska, the scrappy young man recruited to cast a church bell in a plague-ravaged area (in the final chapter of the film), embodies this holy madness. To bring back the chiming of bells amid civilizational disorder, it takes heroic discipline. Some men must be flogged for rejecting the young master’s discipline. Sleeplessness, hunger, alienation, crises of faith, the ridicule and derision of the ignorant, the obsessive search for just the right kind of casting clay—all this is par for the course for those who would restore order to the world.
So it is with us today. If you live in New York, don’t miss Andrei Rublev at the Film Society.