Thinking of Lent in Black and White

Anatoli Solonitsyn as Andre Rublev. Source:: British Film Institute

I realize I’ve learned to think of Lent in black and white.

It’s like an old film whose shape on the screen is smaller, tighter, restrictive.

Modern films created in black and white (Schindler’s List, or Roma, for example) arrive with an aura of added artful significance because of the different, intentional path their directors have chosen as their vehicle for communication. It’s what they don’t do that draws your attention to what they have set out to achieve artistically. You can’t just sit back. You have to do some extra work.

To watch a film in black and white, without 3-D glasses, and with no chest-thumping surround sound, is to slow down, breathe deeply, and immerse yourself in another sense of time. Cinematic Lent.

Andrei Tarkvosky’s 1966 black and white film, Andre Rublev presents a biographical portrait of a troubled genius, Orthodox monk, and artist who lived from ca. 1360 to 1428. Tarkovsky originally entitled his film The Passion According to Andrei.

Andre Rublev’ “Trinity” icon. Source: public domain, via The Yorck Project.

Rublev’s icon of the three angels that Abraham encountered in Genesis (chapter 18) and now popularly known as “The Holy Trinity”, is one of the most reproduced images in the history of religious art.

Although Rublev’s icons are rich in gold and deep, saturated hues, Tarkovsky chooses to present them in severe and intensely cold black and white.

Tarkovsky, was born in 1936, the same year as Henri Nouwen, and lived most of his life under the rigidity of soviet control. His authentic artistic vision (what Thomas Merton would describe as his true self) was able to take flight only when he was beyond the confines of the Soviet Union, making films with European partners, and fighting to get them circulated and seen when he was back in Russia.

There are moments when Tarkovsky echoes Henri Nouwen’s insight into the healing power of woundedness. Tarkovsky once said in an interview that it is “always through spiritual crisis that healing occurs.” He said, “The soul yearns for harmony, and life is full of discordance. This dichotomy is the stimulus for movement, the source of our pain, and our hope: confirmation of our spiritual depths and potential.”

Pure Nouwen.

The cover (featuring art work by Georges Rouault) of the most recent Doubleday/Image edition of one of Henri Nouwen’s earliest books, The Wounded Healer, originally published in 1972

Andrei Rublev is a long film, three hours and more. In a later section of the film, a giant bell is cast and hoisted into a tower, where it rings out, seemingly across the entirety of the Steppes. Suddenly, the film blooms into colour and camera moves over many of Rublev’s richly coloured icons.

A discordant period of longing and inspiration, as we do a bit of interior work and wait, all the while seeking and reflecting, and hoping we will notice when the change finally comes. Lent. A long time.  An interrupted time, but only when that inexplicable burst of colour that is Easter finally forces us to see differently. Again.

Kevin Burns is an Ottawa-based writer and editor. His forthcoming book, co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, is: Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as Model for a Reformed Priesthood and will be published this spring by Paulist Press in United States and by Novalis in Canada.

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2 Comments
  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 10:28h, 06 April Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 11:17h, 06 April Reply

    Thanks for the insight about the extra work we do when watching black-and-white, and more so, for the inspiration about Lent.

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