The Secret of Bell Bronze
To avoid straining the knee of his trousers he pinches the beige corduroy at the front of the thighs and tugs upwards once. In a single choreographed motion he drops to a squat, bounces on his calves and tips forward onto his knees, tucking his slippered feet beneath his buttocks.
His wife’s orange-handled kitchen scissors lie on the carpet by his knee. Next to them is a blank VHS cassette tape sleeved in plain white card and a copy of the TV Times with a photograph of Jeremy Irons on the front. He flicks to Monday’s film page. Widely regarded as Tarkovsky’s finest film, so the commentary goes, Andrei Rublev charts the life of the great icon painter through a turbulent period of 15th Century Russian history, which was marked by endless fighting between rival Princes and Tartar invasions. Made on an epic scale, it does not flinch from portraying the savagery of the time, from which, almost inexplicably, the serenity of Rublev’s art arose. The great set pieces – the sack of Vladimir, the casting of the bell, the pagan ceremonies of St. John’s Night and the Russian crucifixion – are tours-de-force of visceral filmmaking.
He cuts round the text box and places the clipping on the carpet. Extracting the VHS tape from its sleeve he inserts it into the recorder. The machine whirrs and clunks and draws the cassette into itself. He turns the telly on and uses the buttons on the remote to locate the correct channel. Two men in blond bouffant wigs, bow ties and frill-fronted shirts dance before a Greek-inspired, cartoon backdrop.
He locates the record and pause buttons on the front of the appliance and presses them simultaneously. The mechanism clicks and a tiny red light begins to blink.
One of the men is laughing uncontrollably, his wig slipping over his eyes. There is canned laughter as a hand-drawn curtain falls and a frog skids in from the left, eyes bulging, vocal sac bloating. Rapido Television!
For a moment the screen goes blank before a no. 4 made up of coloured, computer-generated blocks appears, floating in a black void. He presses the pause button and the light ceases to blink. As the recorder makes its reliable noises, ticking and whirring, the segments of the 4 separate and spin toward him. Shadows and reflections slip across their super-gloss surfaces. With a grunt he stands and moves to the window. Everyone has gone to bed long ago though the curtains aren’t yet drawn. He gazes through his ghostly reflection. The darkness seems to press itself against the glass . . .
On the screen a bearded man in roughly hewn sheepskins launches himself from the roof of a Muscovite cathedral, harnessed to a crude hot air balloon. Below him an angry mob brutally beat the balloonist’s helpers with sticks. Some of them shout up at him and shake their fists.
“Dmitri!” he yells from above. “I’m flying! I’m flying!”
Panting with excitement, the balloonist soars above the misty river and over wet and partially snow-covered fields. People stop to look up at him. A horse rolls playfully on its back in the grass . . .
Late winter, outdoors, thawing snow on the bleak landscape. Four bearded men on horseback wearing sheepskin coats and hats wearily approach a wooden shack. Leaning against the wall of the shack, his scabby face turned to the sun, is a boy of about 15, thin and clothed in ragged sheepskins.
“Is this Nikolai the founder’s house?” asks one of the men.
“Yes it is,” replies the boy without looking up.
“Is he your father?”
“Yes, my father.”
“He’s not here.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s dead. The plague has gotten them all: my mother, sister and father, too.”
“And where’s the house of Gavrila the founder?”
“Gavrila is dead, too. So is Kasyan the craftsman. Ivashka’s been taken away by Tartars, only Fyodor remains. Go to him, but you better hurry. He is lying in bed, whizzing, with his eyes closed. He might die any minute now.”
Two of the men go to the side of the shack where one slides lazily out of his saddle into a pile of twigs and stretches out to rest.
“I can’t stand it any more!” He says. “Where are we to look now? We’d better go back home.”
“Get up, I say! Back home… Sprawling like that!”
Out in front of the shack again the men are making to leave.
“What have we come to?! There’s no one to cast a bell!”
On hearing this, the boy’s ears prick and he turns towards the men as they file past on their horses. “Take me along! He says. I’ll cast you a bell!”
“Are you crazy?!”
“Take me to the Prince. I’ll do a fine job! You’re not going to find anyone anyway. They’re all dead. You won’t find anyone better than me!”
“All right! So much worse for you!” The boy is shouting at them now as they slowly ride away. “I know the bell secret! I know it but I won’t tell you! My father knew the secret of bell bronze. Before he died, he passed it on to me. No one else knows it! Only I know! I! My father told me the secret…” The boy’s voice trails off.
The men sit their horses.
“Shall we take this servant of God?”
“He’s just talking rot.”
“Do you want the Grand to skin us alive?”
“He’s lying about the secret.”
“Then he will answer for it. Come here!”
The boy runs across the field where the washed linen is stretched in the sun. In his haste he trips over a sheet and falls onto his face, then quickly scrambles up again.
“Hop on,” says one of the men.
“What about my hut?”
“Sit on. What is your name?”
“Well, Boriska, you’ve talked us into it after all!” And with that they ride out across the snow-covered fields.
The Olympus OM1 was produced in silver and in black. His is the black model, which he takes from its case and places on the sofa. The OM1 was produced between 1973 and 1979. Small, compact and light, it was designed for professional use. The O stands for Olympus and the M stands for Maitani (after Olympus’ chief designer Yoshihisa Maitani).
The tripod is already in place, near the window, rubber feet pressed firmly into the carpet. He releases the camera mount from the tripod head and engages the mount screw with the base of the camera. Intuiting the torque required to secure the camera without causing damage to the body he tightens the mount screw. He sets the mount back in the tripod and locks it.
The camera points directly out of the window at a rose bush in the front garden. He disengages the standard 50mm Zuiko lens and replaces it with the 135mm telephoto one, then removes the lens cap, placing it on the sofa next to the camera bag. Lifting his spectacles to his forehead and stooping, he brings his right eye to the viewfinder, closing the left, and adjusts the focus.
He lifts the tripod and moves it six inches to the right and a-foot-and-a-half forward then stoops to look through the viewfinder again. He focuses the lens. The tripod is still not in the correct position so he lifts and moves it another six inches to the right and one more foot or so towards the window. He stoops, squints and focuses.
Keeping his eye pressed to the camera body he locates the elevator lock nut and loosens it. His hand now searches for the crank handle, which he rotates clockwise raising the camera on the central elevator column before securing it. He sets the aperture at f3.5 (the maximum opening for this lens) and adjusts the shutter speed until the light gauge settles equidistant between the positive and negative poles.
He places his hands on his knees and looks through the viewfinder. He remains in that position for some time before leaving the room.
The day is passed reading the newspaper, listening to the radio and dozing in his chair. When his wife returns from work he is sweeping the kitchen floor. She asks how his day has been but he doesn’t respond.
“I saw the camera,” she says. “Is it a good idea to leave it in full view like that?”
He carries on sweeping.
“What is it?” she says.
“What is what?”
His wife hesitates. “What are you photographing?”
Getting no response she goes to the sitting room and puts her eye to the viewfinder: perfectly framed by its crisp, black edges is a single red rose. Every petal, every drop of moisture is rendered in sharp focus, whilst the surrounding greenery is thrown into an indistinct blur, the better to emphasise the high definition of the central motif.
She returns to the kitchen.
“It’s lovely,” she says. “Have you taken it?”
In a movement that is barely perceptible, he shrugs his shoulders.
“Why not? Are you going to?”
After a long pause and without lifting his head to meet her gaze, he says, “No film in the camera.”
Early spring, the trees are in bud and the snow is gone. Boris leads a small team of men and one boy up a steep slope from the river below. Across the other side on the opposite bank is a white-walled citadel with a palace and a belfry. The posse gathers at the top of the bank. Some of the men are carrying shovels, one has a length of rope, and the boy has a bundle of short wooden spikes slung on his back.
One of the men starts complaining. “Where are we going? He says. What are we looking for? We can dig over here…”
Boris and the boy exchange meaningful looks and keep walking. Boris is constantly looking around him. “Do we dig here?” he says, pointing a wooden spike at the ground.
“We could,” says one of his companions, “but it would be better to dig closer to the belfry, not to have to carry the weight such a distance…”
“We can dig here, can’t we?” Boris insists. “Let’s do it here.” Boris throws his spike down on the grass. “Come on,” he says, “mark it!” And he kneels to hammer the first spike into the earth. His posse throw off their coats and start to dig.
“Well, have you found it?” Boris shouts as he jumps down into the clay pit where his men, Pyotr and Semyon, and the boy Andreika, are standing.
“What is there to find?” says Semyon, spitting on a lump of clay in his hand. “There it is?”
Boris tugs a piece of clay from the bank and presses it between his two hands, rolling and flattening it. “Is this it?” He says. The men lean on their shovels watching him. He spits on the clay, manipulates it in his fingers, holds it to his ear and squeezes. He tears the lump in half and then presses it back together again. “No,” he says at last, “that’s not the right clay,” and throws it at the bank.
Semyon and Pyotr look at each other in disbelief. “But we always took it from here.”
“And you were making fools of yourselves. This clay’s no good. We’ll keep on looking until we find it.”
The summer is almost over and still the right clay hasn’t been found. It starts to look as if Boris is stalling. One evening his doubts emerge when he suggests to Pyotr that perhaps they shouldn’t go through with it. Pyotr is furious and tells Boris that he pities him. Boris flies into a rage. “I don’t need workers like you!” he shouts.
The next day it is raining heavily and Boris trudges along dragging a shovel behind him in the mud. He wanders to the edge of a steep drop high above the valley, overlooking the river and the citadel on the opposite side. Meaning to kick a stone over the edge in a gesture of impotent rage, Boris accidentally flings his shoe out into space. In his effort to retrieve the shoe he slides all the way down a slippery ravine crash-landing in some bracken. Crawling out on hands and knees Boris finds that he has come to rest in a natural clay pit. He starts to dig excitedly with his hands into the sodden ground.
“Andreika!” he yells, rolling onto his back and pressing his fingers into the clay. “Semyon! Uncle Pyotr! I’ve found it! I’ve found it! The clay is here!”
The 1984 Raleigh Corsa in pearl white Reynolds 531 tubing with Shimano 105 parts is in immaculate condition. It stands upside down on the brick-red tiles of the kitchen, rear wheel removed and leaning, tyre off, against the unit. He has the inner tube in his hand.
The radio, which came from a jumble sale and has matchsticks holding bits of it apart and Selotape holding bits of it together, is playing Chopin. The volume is so low one can barely hear it. He whistles along with the melody. Nocturne 5 In F# Op 15 no.2. The piano rises and falls, drifts almost imperceptibly from adagio to allegro. With his whistle he follows without effort every shift, every nuance, produces every little cadence, every trill and flourish, every crescendo, every diminuendo.
At the sink he fills the washing up bowl with lukewarm water. Fixing the pump to the valve, the inner tube is partially inflated and lowered into the basin where he feeds the rubber through his submerged hands. Three quarters of the tube has passed through the water when a tiny stream of bubbles appears. He lifts the tube from the bowl and dries it on a tea towel. He has lost the precise location of the puncture and so raises the tube to his mouth, where the sensitive skin of his lips will be able to detect the jet. He holds it there to enjoy for a moment the smell of rubber and the delicate caress of cold air on his lip, before marking the spot with a stub of yellow wax crayon. He passes the rest of the tube through the water to ensure there are no further ruptures, before deflating it entirely and dangling it over a chair to dry.
His teapot, chromed steel with a hinged lid, is almost black with tannin inside. He takes it to the sink, turns it upside down and rinses it out with cold water. Next he spoons a few loose tealeaves into the pot. A very few leaves is all he requires, preferring his tea the colour of straw, gnat’s piss, as his wife likes to call it. Freshly boiled water is added and after stirring the pot he lets it stew.
Running his hands over it confirms the tube is dry. From the repair kit, which lies open on the table, he extracts a small rectangle of coarse sandpaper, folds it once and rubs in the vicinity of the puncture to key the surface ready for the solution. He blows off the dust, replaces the sandpaper and takes the little metal tube of adhesive from the tin. After blowing the dust a second time and rubbing the area with his thumb, he squeezes out a small amount of solution and spreads the gum into an even layer with the tip of his little finger. The tube is dangled over the chair again for the adhesive to go off whilst he pours himself a cup of tea.
It is never too long before Mozart comes on the radio and never too soon. Symphony No. 25 in G minor, allegro con brio – though this may be a popular and accessible piece, it is none the less brilliant and inventive. Immediately he is synchronised with the lively pace and, with a butter knife from the draining board in one hand, his other hand elegantly poised, he begins to conduct. His masterful whistling now follows the racing pizzicato of the melody played on the violins, and now the rhythmic punctuations of the brass. Still animated, and with a faux seriousness befitting Mozart’s tone, he places the knife back on the draining board, takes up the inner tube and tests the glue with his little finger.
Now seated, he lays the tube across his lap and selects the appropriate sized patch from a strip folded inside the tin. Peeling off the plastic backing he locates the patch on the gummed area and presses it down firmly. In the twenty minutes or so required for the solution to harden, he pours himself a second cup of tea, turns up the volume on the radio ever-so slightly, and immerses himself in the music.
When he is sure the glue is dry he dusts the patched area with chalk from a little block, which he grates on the base of the kit. This will neutralise any excess solution and prevent it from sticking to the inside of the tire. Taking the wheel from where it has been leaning against the kitchen unit, he feels, with two fingers, the internal circumference of the tire, for fragments of glass, sharp stones and any other foreign body that may have been the cause the puncture and may still be lodged in the tire wall. He knows from experience the frustration of, having taken care to repair a puncture, replacing the inner tube and inflating it, only to find oneself back at the beginning again.
Once satisfied that no threat to his accomplishment remains, he inflates the tube a fraction and reinserts it between the tire and the rim, feeding it cautiously to ensure it goes in straight and doesn’t get twisted or otherwise compromised. A few more cubic centimetres of air are injected into the tube to avoid it being pinched. Starting opposite the valve and working his way round in both directions, he gingerly levers the tire back onto the rim, finishing by firmly massaging the tire all round to coax the tube into its proper position ready for inflating.
Bruch comes on the radio. He recognises it instantly. Adagio from Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Opus 26. And judging from the almost imperceptible beginning to that first note it’s the 1961 recording with Menuhin as the soloist.
With the wheel once again nestled in the frame he pulls his chair up to the rear of the bike. He ensures that the chain is correctly tensioned at its shortest spot and that the rim of the wheel is perfectly aligned between the stays before tightening the nuts with an adjustable spanner. Spinning the wheel slowly and looking with one eye closed across its section, he perceives a slight buckle; the spokes will need adjusting.
The sentimental lyricism of Bruch’s composition permeates his body, producing an affective state that spreads throughout his interior. The aged recording and the cheap speaker on his jumble-sale radio enhance the grain of Menuhin’s ‘voice’, like a screen. Compounding this sense of distance is Menuhin’s phrasing. The soloist plays so far behind tempo that at times he sounds as if he has come unattached from the rest of the orchestra altogether and meandered off on his own.
Sitting on the kitchen chair with the bike upturned, rear wheel between his legs, head bowed close to the rim, he stretches his strong fingers across the spokes, feeling for the slack spots, like he is playing a harp.
Autumn, and there is a hive of activity in and around the foundry. Pyotr, Andreika and Semyon are in the pit working on the enormous clay and straw mould. Beside the pit the furnaces are under construction.
Across the valley under a grey sky lies the citadel and the whole community is out on the riverbank engaged in preparations for the casting. Boris can be heard shouting orders above the noise and discussing the cost of rope and other materials.
“Are we going to pay that price?”
“Go ahead and pay,” says Boris.
“The Prince will kill you for that! We’re going to ruin him.”
“What do I care now!”
Boris descends into the casting pit. “Well?” he says.
“This mould won’t hold,” says Semyon. “We’ll have to twine it all around.”
“It’s time to coat it with clay and you haven’t made the mould yet!”
“We need to reinforce it more, but there are no more twigs.”
“Finish it up! We must start baking the clay by the evening.”
“If the mould isn’t reinforced it won’t stand bronze, it’ll crack.”
“What if we don’t bake it before snow? I’ll be flogged then, not you!”
“The mould won’t hold in here.”
“Finish up the mould! Do you hear me or not?”
“I’m not going to do it,” says Semyon.
“Suit yourself, but get out of here.” Boris turns to the boy. “Andreika, finish it up.”
“He’s not going to do it either,” says Pyotr.
“Andreika,” says Boris. “Are you going to do it?”
“It won’t hold!” says Andreika. “We need to twine it more.”
Boris gets angry. “Are you going to obey me? Who is in charge here?”
“We need one more layer.”
Boris leans back on the side of the pit. “Fyodor!” He shouts. “Fyodor!”
“I’m here.” Fyodor comes down into the pit.
“Flog him!” Says Boris. “Not him, this one.” He points to Andreika. “He refuses to work, he won’t listen to my orders.” Fyodor hauls Andreika out of the pit by his collar. “I’m going to show you who is in charge here!” says Boris.
“Your father didn’t treat us like that,” says Semyon.
“So you remembered my father?! Let him be flogged in the name of my father!”
As the cries of Andreika are heard from above Boris leans back on the side of the pit. “Finish it up,” he says, wearily, and looking up he sees the figure of Andrei Rublev, now an old man. “What are you looking at?”
Andrei doesn’t respond.
“Do you feel sorry for him? So go and comfort him. It’s all you monks are good for any way.” Exhausted, Boris lies down on a sheepskin and sleeps.
“I began baking,” says Semyon, shaking Boris awake.
“Why without me? I told you to wake me up.”
Whilst he was sleeping Boris’s colleagues have carried him out of the pit and laid him down under a sheepskin. Snow lies all around in the fields and Boris leaps up and rushes forward to gaze at the fire.
Forty-foot flames spew furiously out of the pit where the mould is being baked. Boris gets as close as he can without burning up. Shielding his face from the heat he smiles. “That’s what I call real hot,” he says, laughing. “Isn’t it hot?”
Silver, bronze and iron is being gathered to go into the furnaces and Boris himself oversees the weighing of the various metals that will make up the compound.
“Not enough silver,” he says, picking up a plate from the pile. “Tell the Prince not to be stingy.”
“The Grand Prince is never stingy.”
“I don’t know, but we need another half pood.”
“What difference does it make?”
“Who knows the secret of bell bronze, you or me? Tell the prince we need another half pood.” Boris turns to Semyon. “I’m going to shake a lot of silver out of the prince,” he says, laughing into his hand. “And the bell won’t ring...”
Night. The moment for casting the bell has arrived. Three massive furnaces atop the pit blaze furiously stoked by men stripped to the waist despite the freezing cold. Snow lies all around. Boris runs from furnace to furnace checking that all the fires are burning to full capacity.
“The second and third furnaces are ready!” shouts Andreika. “The first will be ready soon!”
On the bank a small crowd has gathered to watch as one by one the furnaces are finally opened. White-hot alloy courses down from all sides of the pit into the mould via a hole in its top, gurgling and hissing. Smoke and sparks fly up from the opening into the night sky.
“It’s flowing! Boriska! It’s flowing!”
Boris cocks his head to listenß as the rapidly cooling liquid wheezes and pops.
“God help us!” he whispers to himself. “Let it work!”
On the table is a miniature engine with a yellow plastic propeller attached to the front.
The motor, made of alloy, which has oxidised, dulling its surface, is fixed by three screws to a wooden block; the block is clamped to the table with a G-clamp. It has a single, upright cylinder with horizontal fins to channel airflow and cool the motor down.
Beside the engine, attached to the block with an elastic band, is a miniature fuel tank. A short, translucent tube connects it to the engine and another tube, an inch or so in length, protrudes from the top of it.
He picks up a plastic funnel and inserts it into this second tube, then half fills the funnel with pink liquid from a plastic bottle. When the funnel has drained he extracts it and wipes it on a blue rag. He seals the bottle and wipes it with the rag. He wipes his fingers with the rag and places it on the table next to the bottle.
A lever protrudes from the top of the cylinder and a tiny throttle wheel sticks out of the side. He turns the lever clockwise one-quarter turn and makes a minute adjustment of the wheel, which is dwarfed by his forefinger and thumb. There is a spring on the propeller shaft. The spring has a crook at one end, which he latches over the blade. He winds the propeller clockwise through two rotations to cock the spring and lets go.
The motor sputters and the prop spins then abruptly stops. He turns the lever another quarter-turn, adjusts the throttle and repeats the action, cocking and releasing the prop. His large fingers move deftly through this procedure.
Another half-turn of the lever and the engine comes to life with a deafening buzz. The propeller is transformed into a blur.
The motor wavers and he adjusts the throttle and listens. It sounds like a giant, angry hornet. The room is filled with the smell of burning methanol and caster oil.
After several minutes he pinches the rubber tube connected to the fuel tank. For a moment the engine whines in an even higher pitch than before, before it chokes and dies.
With one hand he rakes back his hair from his forehead.
In the morning the massive mould is still steaming. Semyon, Pyotr and Andreika tap it with mallets, listening. Boris climbs down into the pit to inspect for himself. He places an ear to the hot, dry clay, which is baked hard as rock. He and his men begin to break open the mould with long-handled spikes. It is slow work but eventually the surface cracks and great chunks fall away revealing the dark bronze beneath.
Andrei Rublev looks down from the edge of the pit.
The whole bell is free of its encasement now and Boris leans upon it pressing his cheek against the warm bronze.
“Tomorrow is going to be the day,” says Pyotr. “I wish we could have some sleep.”
Some way from the casting pit is Andrei’s monastery. Andrei is burning leaves in the grounds. Kirill is there and he is appealing to Andrei.
“Listen Andrei,” he says. “I kept thinking about it and I’ve decided to tell you. I envied you, you know it yourself. Envy was eating me up so much that it had poisoned my guts. I couldn’t bear it anymore, so I left. But when I heard that you had given up painting, I felt so much better, and then I forgot about it.”
Andrei ignores Kirill’s confession and goes about his work. Smoke and steam from the damp leaves clouds the air between them.
“Oh why am I confessing to you?” says Kirill. “I don’t have to. You’re a great sinner yourself. You’ve sinned more than I. What am I? Just a worthless worm. What can be expected of me? And you? For what holy deeds has God given you your talent?
“I know that Nikon has already sent three messengers to you, trying to talk you into decorating the Trinity. And you wouldn’t even speak to them. I must admit that it provoked a feeling of joy, but now that my life’s coming to an end, my soul cries for eternal rest.
“Listen to me. Go to the Trinity and paint, paint! It’s a great sin, to reject a God-given gift. Look at me, look at the one who has no talent! Why do you think I’ve come back? I’m going to die soon and nothing will be left after me.
“You will die soon too, Andrei. Do you want to take your talent with you into the grave? Why don’t you say something? Say one word, at least! Curse me at least, but don’t keep silent, Andrei!”
When he wakes the television screen is blank and he is in almost total darkness. He sits there for a moment and then gets up and opens the curtains. It’s still dark outside although the birds are singing. It must be just about dawn.
He squats before the telly and presses rewind on the VCR but the tape has already wound itself back: the machine just clicks. He presses the eject button and waits. While the device thinks about it he fans the fingers of both hands, index-to-pinkie and back again. The mechanism clunks and whines and produces the tape, which he slips into the white card case. The text panel which he cut from the TV Times is still lying on the carpet. He picks it up and posts it into the sleeve with the cassette.
Having turned the telly off he goes into the dining room and kneels before the Georgian oak chest his wife bought at an antique’s fair. His wife’s hobby is antiques and, like many other items she has purchased over the years, she stripped, sanded and varnished the Georgian chest by herself.
He opens the middle drawer. Inside are three rows of VHS cassettes, spine up, each one sleeved in plain white card, identical to the one he is holding. The cases are unmarked but occasional dividers indicate an alphabetised system. Starting in the top drawer with Michelangelo Antonioni and finishing in the bottom with Orson Welles. Most of the great film directors are here: Ingmar Bergman; Bernardo Bertolucci; Robert Bresson; Luis Bunuel; Charlie Chaplin; Dreyer; Eisenstein (of course); Fassbinder; Fellini (a personal favourite); Jean-Luc Goddard (whom he never quite got to grips with, except for the 1966 Masculine Feminine); dear Buster Keaton; and the ‘master’s master’, Akira Kurosawa, whose 1954 film Seven Samurai he has watched countless times and never fails to be moved by. For several years now Chanel 4 has been broadcasting seasons of the most highly acclaimed directors in the history of cinema, an initiative that has coincided with increasingly refined and easy to use video recording technology, enabling him to amass quite a library at very little financial cost.
His most beloved directors are Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Ray’s first film Pather Panchali (1955), the touching story of a boy growing up in rural Bengal, ranks in his top three films of all time. The other two are: Fellini’s La Strada (1954), about a man who destroys the woman he loves because he cannot bear to admit his dependence on her; and of course Seven Samurai. If Seven Samurai is a melodrama about socio-economic obstacles to the mobilisation of aggression, then Andrei Rublev is a meditation on the obstacles, both external and internal, to creativity.
Apart from Andrei Rublev the only other Tarkovsky film in his collection is The Mirror (1974). He is not a Tarkovsky ‘fan’ in the same way is he is a fan of Kurosawa, Ray and Fellini because none of Tarkovsky’s films he really loves. He admiresTarkovsky, but he doesn’t loveTarkovsky. The problem, you see, with Tarkovsky, is that he can get over absorbed in surface detail – the reflections in a muddy puddle, for example, or the crumbling wall of a decrepit cottage…
Having said that, there are moments in Tarkovsky where one is deeply moved by his slow pace and haptic style. For example, that breathtaking moment in The Mirror when the wind ripples through a field of tall grass. Any other director may have brought this visual phenomenon to our attention once and moved on, but Tarkovsky waits until the wind ripples the field for a second time.
Though he has never put his finger on why, the first time he was exposed to this repeated gesture (when he went to the cinema to watch The Mirror in 1974) he was filled with a complex and contradictory fusion of emotions. Even now the memory of it bristles his neck hair and causes goose bumps to fan out across his upper arms like the rippling of the wind itself across that very field. At the same time, this image produces an inner wave of dread.
Having slipped the latest addition to his library between The Mirror and Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958), he closes the drawer and returns to the sitting room where ho goes and stands at the window.
A delicate breeze is stirring and he becomes entranced by a black poplar whose small, diamond-shaped leaves flicker almost imperceptibly in the dawn’s early light.
A wooden scaffold has been erected over the casting pit and an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys fans out across the surrounding area. Many of the town’s men have been summoned to pull, and slowly the great bell, taller than a man, emerges from the ground.
Boris seems stunned, walking around aimlessly, watching the proceedings.
Across the bank the Prince emerges from the gates of the citadel. With his entourage of men he passes the townsfolk who kneel and bow before him.
“Look, who’s that?”
“The Grand Prince.”
“And who are those with him?”
“It’s the foreign ambassadors.”
“This is some day, Holy mother!”
Boris walks around the scaffolding nervously as the bell continues to be hoisted up, inch-by-inch. When it is fully emerged he squints up at it. The giant bell rotates slowly in the sun.
The bell is tied off now and is blessed by priests wearing white and gold robes. “This bell is being blessed and consecrated by the besprinkling on it of this holy water. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The Prince sits his horse. “See what kind I put in charge here?” he says to the ambassadors, nodding in Boris’ direction.
Boris tries to disappear into the crowd, but is grabbed and hauled out and pushed before the Prince. “Where are you going? Go there…”
Boris kneels before the Grand Prince and bows his head.
The Prince is getting restless and the moment can no longer be put off. Boris is far too slight to move the huge clapper himself so a man with big broad shoulders is brought in. He jumps down under the bell, takes off his sheepskin jacket and roles up his sleeves. The clapper is the size of two men and takes a huge effort to bring into motion.
The crowd is silent. The clapper gradually starts to pick up momentum. The Prince looks on from his horse.
Boris sinks to his knees in the mud.
The clapper is almost touching the bell now and all eyes are upon it.
The clapper makes contact for the first time and the bell rings out in a deep, rich tone.
The chime can be heard for miles and Andrei Rublev, who has not attended the ceremony, but has remained at the monastery, turns towards the sound of the bell.
The crowd clap and chatter excitedly and the bell rings out, bold and powerful.
Boris slumps down exhausted into the mud.
As the great bell continues to toll all the bells of the citadel ring out in unison...
Evening and the crowd has dispersed, apart from a few stragglers. Andrei Rublev approaches a cluster of them who have gathered to stare at a figure lying in the mud. It is Boris. He has collapsed and is hugging a wooden post, part of the pulley system for moving the bell.
Andrei kneels beside him, lifts him and cradles him.
“Don’t,” Boris sobs.
Andrei holds him in his arms.
“My father,” says Boris, “the old beast, he would not pass to me the secret. He died never telling me the secret. Took it to his grave, old tightwad.”
Andrei holds Boris tenderly and speaks softly in his ear. “You see,” he whispers, “everything worked out right. Beautiful! Stop it. We’ll go together now. You’ll be casting bells and I’ll be painting icons. We’ll go to the Trinity, you and me. You’ve created such a feast, such a joy for people. Why are you crying?
“There… there… Stop crying…
“There… there… enough…
“Enough, hush, hush…”