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Directing Between the Lines 

Andrey Zvyagintsev deepens the text

Thursday, Feb 12 2004
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Photo by Jack Gould

When Andrey Zvyagintsev’s dark study of fathers and father figures, The Return, received its North American premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it seemed a breath of fresh, yet rigorously classical, air. Here, in the midst of a festival dominated by the cinema’s “old masters” — Rivette, Bellocchio, Olivera — was the supremely confident work of a director not yet 40 who clearly aspired to someday be included in that pantheon. Or so it seemed to me. Meeting up with Zvyagintsev several months later, however, as he swung through L.A. on a publicity tour for the film, I found that he didn’t adhere to my view.

“My immediate reaction to your comment would be that I do not associate myself with any generation,” he told me sitting poolside at a boutique Beverly Hills hotel. “I rather see myself as an individual trying to express my feelings in a personal way. However,” he added after further consideration, “beginning with the Venice Film Festival, when I’ve been asked questions about my favorite film directors, I come up with a list, most of which is composed of names from the 1960s — Bresson, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Alexei German. I think that starting from Griffith, film art has been on the ascent, and it reached one of its climaxes in the 1960s with those names.”

 

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L.A. WEEKLY: The filmmakers you mention seem allied in their awareness of cinema as an aesthetic language unique unto itself — capable of expressing meaning in ways entirely different from painting, the novel or theater.

ANDREY ZVYAGINTSEV: What is between the lines in a story is much more interesting than its verbal expression and the dialogue. In my understanding, film is a visual art, and when a filmmaker achieves the goal, and the feelings and atmosphere onscreen aren’t necessarily supported by the dialogue, that’s the most interesting thing.

 

Yet The Return also represents the product of a collaboration between you and two screenwriters, Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky. Can you talk about what appealed to you about their script and how the three of you worked together?

While I quite liked the screenplay when I first read it, it seemed to me too much an example of genre cinema, leaning toward action films, and with a rather masculine, even brutal, type of action. Some parts of the script have been rewritten, but the screenwriters were very cooperative, and our collaboration led to the screenplay that I turned into the film. Another transformation that has probably happened is that a seemingly smalltime story of a father and his two sons has acquired a metaphysical quality, and that’s the way I envisioned it from the very beginning.

 

Indeed, to my mind the most haunting scenes in the film are those surrealistic — or, to use your word, metaphysical — depictions of childhood initiation rituals and other means by which boys seek to become men.

I think that at some point it’s expected that the young boy will be the first to enter into the man’s world, but then there’s a twist and it’s the older brother who enters the man’s world, and it’s definitely the father who, through becoming a victim, creates a link or a bridge to this new world for the boys. One of the main ideas of the film is that of the eternal return, of a certain natural cycle of life in which things come back to the starting point. There are some references to the Bible, and by using Bible language I can talk about the initiation of a new believer through the mystery of life.

 

Your film has resonated powerfully with audiences all over the world, from Venice to Toronto and now on to Sundance and commercial movie theaters across America. Do you feel that these audiences connect with the film in a different way than a Russian audience does, or is the film’s message essentially universal?

Well, the film was intended as one with some universal appeal, but in different countries it is perceived slightly differently based on local culture and traditions. Still, people seem to get interested in it. It might be stereotyping to describe Russian national character as depressed and subdued and Italian national character as extroverted and very emotional, but the reception of the film seems to be somewhat along those lines in those countries. I don’t know what the reaction to it will be in the States, but I look forward to seeing what happens.

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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