Art and Conscience

Rewind to Christmas 2013 when, in homage to the most celebrated hanged man in history, we analyzed institutional hangings in two movies. This Christmas we look at a film featuring a mystic from the Middle Ages, famed for painting that most talked about torture victim of all time.

“Andre Rublev” (1966), Andre Tarkovsky’s second feature, equates the creation of art to an act of faith. A Russian monarch summons medieval monk Andre Rublev to paint scenes from the Last Judgment in his splendid new church. On his way to the gig, the gifted, medieval icon painter becomes an eye-witness to an act of ruthless destruction followed by one of sublime creation.

In this meandering epic, Tarkovsky comments on the moral predicament of an artist. Andre the monk doesn’t believe churches should be decorated with devils and dungeons, so he defies the prince. His conscience dictates that he be responsible to his audience for the images he creates. As the artist’s work matures and comes into its own, each artifice he or she erects is a gamble in which one wagers their soul as well as their worldly reputation and for which there is no return and no second chance.

Andre’s friends and masters warn him to stop procrastinating. They keep urging the reluctant genius to just go give the devil his day and be done. Instead, the forlorn mystic of brush and pigment wanders the countryside, taking shelter in poverty, chastity and trying to be kind. Everyone is terrified of what the prince might do if he doesn’t paint the Last Judgment in time. Andre is unmoved. Why glory in the ungodly, he muses, when cruelty is so prevalent in daily life?

One thing Andre Tarkovsky proves through Andre Rublev, with his tryptic lens, is that we can pick from just about any point along the continuum of history to find inspiration for the Last Judgment. In Rublev, the theme echoes in three distinct variations. In the representation of the biblical event the artist is commissioned to paint; in the ritual of torture that we witness during the sack of the town of Vladimir; and finally, in the casting of a huge bell from molten bronze by a young craftsman.

The middle section of Rublev depicts a bloody invasion. In Rublev’s time, the Tatar were hired to do the dirty work. They served a similar purpose as the torturers that came to light recently in the US interrogations report. It seems every generation enacts its version of the Last Judgment.

During the invasion of this picturesque Medieval Russian town, we observe an act of torture in horrid detail. Men are blinded and left groping on hands and knees; a horse falls backward through a staircase, gets speared through the heart and bleeds to death onscreen. These crescendoing, atrocities unreel before our eyes as we witness the overthrow of the feudal prince by his brother and the torching of a town with the help of hired guns. Their leader wears a horned helmet and is the very picture of a charismatic warrior on the back of his powerful steed.

The climax of the pillage surely must be when an official of Vladimir is interrogated. His inquisitor is all smiles while he’s blindfolding the victim and binding him to a board before laying him back, forcing his mouth open and filling it with boiling pitch. Then the poor fellow is dragged on the ground behind a horse.

Cruelty stalks this film but I ask you to compare it with another movie I recently reviewed. Some readers may wish to revisit our previous zoom-in on a discussion begun last July, about the Theater of Cruelty. Why not highlight the different ways the concept is experimented with in these two films?

I have proposed that, with his recent film, “Nymph()manic” Vol II (2014), director Lars Von Trier intended the audience to push back. He provokes the viewer to employ self-defense, which led the film reviewer at our local independent free weekly paper to pronounced it “shit.” That left dozens of valuable debates on problems in our society never to be exchanged among the readership; at least among those that accepted the reviewers lazy condemnation and stayed home. Violence against women is in the headlines, so why was Von Trier’s film considered taboo instead of tuned in? Does the nightly news claim to have the sole right to sensationalize society’s ills?

I think Theater of Cruelty can be either toxic or tonic. When I watched Von Trier’s film, I did not read his intentions as being disrespectful to women any more than men. I found the pictures he made alarming and painful for anyone to endure. I closed my eyes through some of it. Nevertheless, after I left, I did not hold a grudge. I have been intrigued by many of that director’s previous movies, enough to swallow his bitter draft from last year, if for no other reason than to search for and discover its antidote in another film, as I believe I have in “Andre Rublev”.

In “Andre Rublev”, Tarkovsky’s application of the Theater of Cruelty is fashioned to nourish pity, tug at the heart and urge us toward compassion and harmony. He intends for me to empathize with his victims. With Von Trier’s “Nymph()maniac” Vol. 2. (2014), being harder to watch, the intent of the film is therefore harder to interpret. View, if you can stand, the controversial passages before you draw your own conclusions. Next month, “Andre Rublev” Act III.

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