The Return Review
This is one of my top 5 DVDs of the year, without question. Ever since seeing it on its UK theatrical release earlier this year I’ve been anticipating the DVD of ‘The Return’, both to judge the quality of the disk and to see how the film stood up to a second viewing. I’m delighted to report that the film has received good treatment at the hands of UGC/Fox and – more importantly – remains one of the most bewitching, fascinating films of the new century, a debut feature to rank with the likes of ‘Red Sorghum’, ‘Obsessione’ and ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’.
I was pleased to see that the film’s relentless tension and steadily accumulating sense of foreboding isn’t diffused through knowing what happens (and please note that there are spoilers throughout what follows so if you don’t want to know what happens in the film, don’t read on). One’s sense of appreciation about the film only increases, particularly the miraculous editing job by Vladimir Mogilevsky, who has somehow managed to cut together this meditative, unhurried and deeply mysterious drama so that it hurtles along like a juggernaut, simultaneously leaving its psychological spine intact so that a 105-minute movie has the emotional impact of a three-hour epic.
In fact, it’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that everything about this film is perfect. In the documentary that accompanies the DVD cinematographer Mikhail Krichman says that he and director Zvyagintsev structured the film into a series of ‘episodes’, at the beginning and end of which they would cut to a wide shot (while always remaining sensitive to the needs of a specific scene). The result is a film that literally seems to ‘breathe’, alternating exquisite shots of the infinite Russian landscape with arresting, intimate close-ups. Its characters occupy mysterious, unpopulated spaces – the looming vastness of the forest, limitless plains, a silent, empty lake – where almost the only sounds are of nature; lapping water, rain, the rumble of thunder...
Like a brilliant short story writer, Zvyagintsev (with writers Novototsky and Moiseyenko) sketches his scenes with absolute precision, never wasting a second of film time. The extraordinary economy of the screenplay gives every exchange between the boys and their father added weight, imbuing every glance with tremendous significance. Then, just as one is developing a sense of the film’s rhythm, of where it might be going, Zvyagintsev throws a spanner into the works. The scene in which Vanya is dumped on a bridge in the middle of nowhere by his father for complaining and then watches a truck slowly approach is an example of this, a mini masterpiece of understated tension which, oddly enough, reminded me of Roger Thornhill disembarking from the bus and walking slowly towards the anonymous stranger in 'North by Northwest' – a scene that throws an already disoriented viewer for a complete loop, as one struggles to integrate it into some kind of preconceived pattern, while simultaneously being forced to surrender to its own, irresistible force.
I watched 'The Return' DVD concurrently with Criterion’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ disk and – while I still think a lot of the Tarkovsky comparisons originating around the time of the film’s theatrical release were simply knee-jerk reactions to a new Russian film-maker who liked water – there’s no doubting the very Russian mysticism that Zvyagintsev has managed to capture on film, an extraordinarily rare achievement. It’s the sense that, behind these everyday characters and events, lies an intangible spiritual world that is somehow informing and interacting with them. Mystery lies at the heart of this enterprise, a looming unknown that will disappear if looked at directly (it’s only in the occasional nods toward religious iconography – such as the boys’ first glimpse of their father sprawled under a bed sheet like Christ in the tomb – that this connection is made more explicit). Like Tarkovsky, Zvyagintsev does have the rare gift of giving a film this ineffable quality; my concern is that such a comparison – while the very highest kind of praise that can be bestowed on a filmmaker – can also in a sense be a dismissal of the original qualities brought by the new guy, and it's important to understand that Zvyagintsev, while working in what is essentially a timeless Russian tradition, has also made a film that is absolutely current, of the 21st Century and very much a film that communicates itself with a contemporary sense of brevity and urgency.
'The Return' is about fathers and sons, about brothers, about the difficulty – even impossibility – of making up for lost time. It's also about a lot more, but that's up to every person to discover for themselves. There's an epic sadness about the film, about Father's inability to communicate with his sons, about the fate that awaits him. In that part of the world where the watery horizon merges seamlessly with the sky, Andrei and Vanya emerge in their boat with his body, as if carrying it back to earth from another universe. It’s as powerful and exquisite an image as I’ve seen in the cinema in the last ten years, and one which will stay with me for a long time.
Utterly terrifying in its closing quarter, exceptionally moving and deeply, impenetrably mysterious. 'The Return' is a masterpiece, I've no doubt of it. It's so good that one is tempted to see it as being in the vanguard of a new cinematic Russian revolution. Perhaps in ten or fifteen years time, we'll be looking at it, and its subsequent impact on Russian film, in the same way we look now at 'Yellow Earth' and 'Red Sorghum', those mid-80s films which heralded a new wave of Chinese cinema. I really hope so.
'The Return' utilised a post-production process that sucked a lot of the colour out of the film. A lot of it was also shot outside, sometimes into the light source. Accordingly there are times when faces are hard to distinguish and details get hidden. However, this is deliberate and in keeping with the film's ambiguous tone, and is not the fault of the transfer, which is very good.
UGC/Fox have provided a 2.0 and a 5.1 mix which immerses the viewer into the subtle sound world the film-makers have created. Neither mix is going to disturb the neighbours, but they're both clear and uncluttered and bring to life Andrei Dergachyov's deeply eerie score.
"It is necessary to make a film that probably no-one needs, except for the people who want to make it," says producer Dima Lesnevsky at the start of this fascinating hour-long documentary, describing the purity of artistic motivation that fuelled the inception and creation of 'The Return'. He's the man that Zvyagintsev attributes with changing his life, and the two speak about each other with the sort of understated but absolute respect of soldiers who have fought in the same war. It's a tone that runs throughout the cast and crew interviews that make up the feature, which is noticeably lacking in the self-congratulatory schmooze that permeates so many similar extras deriving from Hollywood. Nor would one expect to see so many minutes dedicated to the focus puller and second assistant cameraman, as they are here – a suitably collectivist spirit permeates the feature as a whole.
The documentary offers a glimpse into the unusual degree of trust and happenstance that was integral to the creation of the film. Casting developed organically with theatre actor Kostya Lavronenko (Father) bringing in young colleague Vanya Dobronravov (Ivan). Vladimir Garin (Andrey) was brought in through a screen test, much of which is included here. The subject of Garin’s tragic death (he drowned two months before 'The Return's triumphant Venice debut) is also touched on with extreme delicacy and the documentary is dedicated to him. Zvyagintsev introduces some deleted scenes and explains why they weren't included. There's also footage of the film winning at the Venice Film Festival. At just over an hour, this is not fluffy filler, but a genuine look at the heart and soul of this astonishing film, executed in much the same elliptical style as its subject.
A Photo Gallery and Theatrical Trailer are also included. Mention must also be made of the exceptionally tasteful animated menus.
'The Return' is the best movie of the year, Andrei Zvyagintsev is the most exciting new director of the past five years and this DVD is one of a handful produced this year that I can genuinely say is essential. Obtain it immediately, whatever the cost.
9 out of 10
9 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
Last updated: 28/05/2018 06:08:50