Father and Son Review
Coming from the director of Russian Ark, a vast examination of Russian history seen through a 90 minute single-shot exploration of St. Petersberg’s Hermitage Museum, it’s not unexpected that Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son – an exploration of the bonds of masculinity between a father and his son - is far from conventional in terms of narrative drive or plot. What is surprising is just how abstract it is and how unsuited this time the treatment is for the themes the director is trying to get across.
Trying to find a narrative thread to describe the plot is difficult in the case of Father and Son. Through a series of images and situations, we come to recognise that Alexei (Aleksey Nejmyshev) and his father (Andrey Shchetinin) live in a small garret apartment of an unspecified costal city. In the absence of a mother, a close physical and emotional bond has developed between father and son. Alexei is a soldier however and is due to leave on service, his impending departure and the enforced separation that this implies causing concern for both men. The father has become accustomed to having no-one but Alexei for company, providing support and guidance for his son. Alexei suffers from nightmares about setting off out into the world and leaving his father behind, concerned that his father might become ill with no-one to look after him. The bond between father and son is examined in several other ways. Alexei has a girlfriend (Marina Zasukhina), but the relationship is faltering as the girl cannot comprehend and feels excluded from the close familial bond between Alexei and his father. A former soldier himself, Alexei’s father is visited by Fedor (Fyodor Lavrov), the son of a former colleague who wants to find out what happened to his father during his military service that caused him to change and affected his own family life. The difference in character between the fatherless Fedor and Alexei is also explored in various abstract ways – the two men walking across a perilous plank to the rooftop area, where Alexei and his father do their work-outs, and taking a tram ride through the city.
Father and Son is the second film in a thematic trilogy about family relationships, following Mother And Son (1997) and to be completed with Two Brothers and a Sister. While the films are not linked in any way other than being similar explorations of the bonds between family members, a greater familiarity with Sokurov’s abstract and poetic style might however make Father and Son more meaningful. Filmed partly in Lisbon and partly in St. Petersberg there is a timeless, placeless quality to a film. All the characters speak Russian, but the film is deliberately dislocated from any specific place to operate more on an emotional level – events and dreams flowing into one another with little sense of natural or realistic transition. Filmed in an almost monochrome golden-amber haze, the film appropriately takes on a misty, hazy, dreamlike quality, hovering between lucidity and abstraction. The sound design also follows this mood, the score based on Tchaikovsy themes weaving in and out of the soundscape like a distant radio, while voices, sounds, creaks and a woman’s cry echo in the background. The soft voices of the main characters sit upfront on top of this like an intimate murmur. The effect, combined with the visual language, is incredibly hypnotic. Or perhaps soporific.
The dislocation of time was used for a specific effect in Russian Ark – to gain a sense of the flow of history and dispel and sense of artificial divisions or distance through time. Father and Son seems to use a similar effect to capture the unspoken, emotional, almost mythological, familial bonds of masculinity between fathers and sons. A poster of body musculature on their apartment wall is perhaps symbolic of their physical commonality and the up-close intimacy seems to be further implied by Alexei’s examination of his father’s x-rays, but in other ways the situation seems artificial and too specific to make any statement about paternal/filial bonds on a universal level. The absence of the mother creates an uncommon closeness between this father and son, the father taking on a more maternal role – looking after his son’s clothes and being concerned at his leaving the nest. The fact that both men are models of physical perfection and of a military background also seems to create a shared intimacy and mutual bond that is just as uncommon. All the soft-focus close-ups of the men gazing intensely into each other’s eyes, the bare-chested hugging and tussling over a game of rooftop football, all fail to overcome or rise above the specificity of the characters and the less than universal circumstances of their situation.
There is some confusion over the BBFC certification here. The cover on my retail copy states a U, suitable for all rating, while the disc itself shows a PG certificate. The BBFC web-site have the film rated a PG so this ought to be the correct rating.
The film is presented anamorphically at 1.78:1. The manipulation of colour, perspective and sharpness and the filming through mirrors and windows make it difficult to judge the quality of the DVD transfer, but the film looks quite stunning. There’s a haziness and a sepia-toned tint to the film that give it a very soft appearance, washing out any strong colours in favour of an dull autumnal tone. At times though, the film cuts through this haze and you can see just how strong the clarity of the transfer is. There may be some very minor shimmering and some chroma-noise, but it’s hard to tell what is intentional and what isn’t and in such a diaphanous and ethereal film it doesn’t matter that much. There are no real marks or scratches anywhere on the print though and it often looks simply gorgeous.
As with Russian Ark, it seems to me that a 5.1 mix would be better for handling the complex sound design, but all we have here is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix. It operates quite well, is clear and warm, but doesn’t envelop in the way that the busy soundtrack suggests it should.
English subtitles are provided and are quite readable, but through no fault of the DVD, they are often intrusive on the imagery. In one example (see screenshot below), when Alexsei and Fedor are catching the tram, the subtitles translate unnecessary dialogue that obscures the characters and completely ruins the frame composition. Considering how little information can be gleaned from the dialogue, it may be better to dispense with the subtitles after an initial viewing and submit to the film’s mood alone. As the subtitles are optional, you have the opportunity to do that with this release.
The extras match the film in being similarly nebulous, with no explanatory interviews or making of materials. A Sokurov short film from 1995 – A Soldier’s Dream (10:41) is certainly an appropriate accompaniment for the film though, being filmed in the same amber haze as the feature (with again cinematography by Alexander Burov). Two soldiers lie unconscious by the wreck of a jeep in a desolate mountainous region. Images of rolling clouds and a religious picture of an angel are superimposed on this scene ...and that’s about it. The Theatrical Trailer (1:36) for Father and Son is presented in 1.85:1 letterbox. Filmographies are included for director, Alexander Sokurov, screenwriter Sergey Potepalov and director of photography Alexander Burov.
On a formal level, Father and Son is a very beautiful film, displaying a poetic nature that is haunting, mystifying and elusive, if not completely incomprehensible on a conscious rational level. The performances however are affected and unfathomable, the dialogues ponderous and obscure, the relationship of father and son (perhaps necessarily) insular and non-inclusive – all distancing to the viewer and precluding any real identification. Perhaps multiple viewings are required and perhaps it will mean more to those who can identify personally with the situation or can relate to the film on an unconscious abstract level, but I personally found the premise unsustainable and its treatment in the film unconvincing, the film lacking the universality and elegaic qualities of Mother And Son. The DVD presents the film fabulously however, with a fine transfer that is more than sympathetic to the wonderful look of the film.