The low-budget Russian film The Return seems an unlikely candidate for the ubiquitous film-festival darling it has become, let alone a respectable hit on its home turf, where American blockbusters have a chokehold on the local film industry. Spare and austere in its painterly beauty, the movie — a first feature about a week in the life of a long-absent father reunited with his two young sons — boasts only one scene that Western movie-goers would consider an event. But this sublimely enigmatic picture, directed by 40-year-old television director Andrey Zvyagintsev, seethes with tumultuous inner life, and the questions it asks, and serenely refuses to answer, are ancient, fundamental and resolutely non-psychological.
As the movie opens, Ivan, the younger of two brothers living with their mother and grandmother in a pretty but decrepit Russian provincial city, crouches frozen with terror at the top of a diving board from which his older brother, Andrey, and a few boisterous friends have been jumping. The boys’ mother (Natalia Vdovina) rescues her son and comforts him, but the others, Andrey included, turn their backs on him, calling him a coward. The brothers fight, then run home to tattle to Mom, only to be shushed because their father is napping. This is big news — he’s been gone for 12 years — and after peeping in on the stranger’s inescapably Christ-like supine form, they rush to confirm his identity in an old family photo sandwiched between the pages of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.
As religious portents go, this is strong stuff. Yet to the Western eye, The Return is all too easily parsed as a Freudian father-son struggle. Dinner that evening is a silent affair, punctuated by terse orders barked out by the father (like the mother, he’s never named), who’s played by the handsome theater actor Konstantin Lavronenko. By the time the three set out on a fishing trip in his cruddy old wreck of a car next morning, the dynamic between the prodigal dad and each of his two sons has been set in place. Where the boys’ mother was tender and solicitous, the father is monosyllabic and stern, by turns arbitrarily autocratic and equally arbitrarily merciful. Quiescent and eager to please, the older boy shows his placatory, vulnerable nature in every delicate muscle of his ethereal face. (Vladimir Garin, the young actor who plays Andrey, drowned only days before Zvyagintsev screened a final print for his cast and crew. If that seems like an abstract tragedy going into the movie, by the end it will move you to the most intimate grief.) The younger boy, Ivan, for all his early fear of heights, is far less tractable, challenging his father’s authority at every turn, refusing to address him as “Papa” and heaping scorn on Andrey for caving without a fight. With his sullen, implacable mouth pulled down at the corners, Ivan Dobronravov’s performance borders on the comical. Yet that lower lip, alternately trembling and tight with rage, bespeaks an epic inner struggle between pain, fear and the pent-up longing to be a son.
The vacation is quickly redefined as a “business trip,” with the sons reluctantly following their father across land and sea to an island, where he picks up a strongbox and loads it onto their boat. If you choose to read The Return as a mystery, you can happily waste your time wondering whether he works for the Russian Mafia, or Chechen terrorists, or makes his living smuggling nuclear material abroad. You’d be following the wrong clues, though, for The Return is the least topical of films. The true mystery is the journey itself, which will turn out to be one of the most spiritually enervating, and elevating, Outward Bound courses ever undertaken.
In 1962, the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with a film called Ivan’s Childhood (originally released in the U.S. as My Name Is Ivan). In The Return, Zvyagintsev altered the names of the two brothers to Ivan and Andrey from the original script by Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky, and as a man so given to signs and portents, he must surely have felt blessed by the divine right of history when The Return, too, won the Golden Lion, in 2003. Tarkovsky’s magisterial fingerprints crawl all over a tribute at once lush and severe, intensely physical and idealized. The struggle of the spirit expresses itself in nature’s shifts between calm and extreme agitation: the flow of one day into the next as the boys reluctantly learn from their father how to master, or at least live with, nature; the rush of wind through a tree’s branches; a dead bird lying on the sand. Zvyagintsev has added a celestial score and the found sounds of the natural world — above all, water and more water in the driving rain that gives way to benign sunshine and a breeze that barely ruffles the ocean’s glassy surface. There’s much attention to fishing; lest you doubt the father’s symbolic identity, at a campfire cookout he tells his sons that he no longer eats fish because he’s “already had too much.” At the end there’s a knife, and another climb up a tall structure, and another prone body floating out to sea, and for every party to this encounter, some clues to the eternal riddle of the meaning of love and sacrifice.
Though clearly a homage to Tarkovsky (and, consciously or not, to the sardonically inquiring spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski), Zvyagintsev’s film is a return in more ways than one. Thematically and formally, it’s a throwback to the sacral mysticism of pre-revolutionary Russia. It’s easy to see why this unrepentantly religious (small r) film became a hit among Russian moviegoers sick to death of the arid pedagogies of communist dogma. I’ve seen The Return twice, and was transported both times. Yet for all its enigma, it’s also — and this went right by me on the first viewing — deeply reactionary, not to say czarist, in its own paternalistic pedagogy. Zvyagintsev, who for the most part understandably refuses to yield to pleas to explain his film, relented enough to tell one interviewer that it was about “the metaphysical incarnation of the soul’s movement from the mother to the father.” If that means what I think it does — and it is certainly borne out, however ambiguously, in the movie — The Return adds up to an implacable discounting of maternal love, but also, perhaps, of Mother Russia (enfeebling) into Father Russia (character-building). I’d have thought this, of all nations, would have had it up to here with tough love from strong leaders.
THE RETURN | Directed by ANDREY ZVYAGINTSEV | Written by VLADIMIR MOISEENKO and ALEXANDER NOVOTOTSKY | Produced by DMITRY LESNEVSKY | Released by Kino International | At Laemmle’s Fairfax, the Westside Pavilion and Laemmle’s One Colorado