Trailing a Golden Lion from Venice last year, plus a variety of other festival awards, this debut film from young Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev has finally arrived in the UK. Natski gets all wound up by the tension.
12-year old Ivan (Dobronravov) stands at the top of a metal tower, looking down fearfully at the surface of a lake, a long way below. The other kids in his gang, including his elder brother Andrey (Garin), have already made the jump and are standing on the pier drying off. Now it’s his turn. But he can’t jump. He’s immobilised by terror. The gang hurl insults and leave, disgusted, and Ivan curls into a miserable, shivering ball. As the sun goes down his mother (Vdovina) finds him and climbs the tower to bring him down. ‘No,’ he sobs, as she hugs him, ‘I have to jump’.
Oddly inconclusive but somehow compelling, the beginning of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s debut film ‘The Return’ is representative of the work as a whole. This is not a film of easy resolutions or obvious answers, and while its structure is actually quite disciplined and its story very simple, one has the sense of never really grasping its meaning. Mystery runs throughout the entire film, like an inaudible hiss.
Ivan and Andrey live with their mother in an unspecified but clearly depressed area of Russia where life seems to consist mostly of making what fun one can out of the shattered landscape. Racing home after a fight one day they are greeted by the news that their father, absent for a decade, has returned and is sleeping upstairs. No explanation is given as to why he has come back, where he’s been or whether he’s going to stay. “He’s just back,” their mother tells them, and leaves it at that. The boys sneak upstairs to catch a glimpse of this mythic figure. Andrey is excited. “Did you see how big he is?” he asks his younger brother, admiringly, “I bet he works out.” Ivan, typically, is unimpressed and immediately resentful of the new arrival.
‘Father’ (Lavronenko) as he orders the boys to call him, is a stern, intimidating character of few words who soon makes his presence felt in the small house. Only his extraordinarily expressive eyes suggest that there’s more to this man than an impassive brute. He suggests taking the boys on a fishing trip, an idea that has even the sullen Ivan interested, and soon the three of them are driving north in the family’s battered red Lada. The conversation does not flow; sitting up front, Andrey is eager to please, but Father isn’t doing much talking. Ivan lurks, sulky and insolent, in the back seat, questioning every order and answering back at every opportunity. As they travel over dull highways, through characterless towns and into breathtaking countryside, the tension between the three grows steadily. Father starts setting the boys small tasks, tests of manhood, strength and self-assertion, which they largely fail. With the fishing accomplished, Andrey and Ivan expect to turn home, but Father reveals he has something else he has to do, a job he needs their help with, and they’re coming with him whether they like it or not.
‘The Return’ is a very well made film, quite delightfully so, without a wasted scene or even an extraneous frame. It’s great to see movie-making that’s disciplined and economical while at the same time humming with atmosphere and great subtlety. Being Russian, and featuring an almost constant stream of water motifs (the very first shot is of the surface of a lake, the second is underwater and the characters are regularly drenched by torrential downpours) comparisons to Tarkovsky seem inevitable. They would, however, also be lazy. While the grand master of contemporary Russian cinema may well have been an inspiration to Zvyagintsev, and while the mystical spirit of the film is quintessentially Russian, technically ‘The Return’ felt more European to me. The scenes are relatively short, the pace quick and the prime objective always seems to be to maintain a continual tension in the viewer, keeping them guessing as to what exactly is going on. If ‘The Return’ reminded me of anything, it was of the original Dutch version of George Sluizer’s ‘The Vanishing’, another film which brilliantly evoked quiet dread from apparently ordinary circumstances.
This is really what makes ‘The Return’ special. Working with deliberately low-key scenarios, Zvyagintsev fashions scene after scene of quietly suffocating tension, the cumulative result of which is to relentlessly press the viewer back into their seat as the essential mystery at the core of the story remains continually unsolved. Virtually all the standard techniques of ‘thriller’ cinema are avoided, and where they are employed it’s with a deftness and understatement that makes them all the more effective. Music is used very sparingly, and never to increase the degree of tension but rather to enhance the sense of isolation and melancholy. Zvyagintsev prefers to let ambient sounds (the rustle of grass, the hiss of rain) and cleverly-written exchanges somehow amplify an overarching silence that seems to hang over the entire country like the featureless overcast sky. Beautiful 35mm cinematography and consistently excellent performances, especially from Konstantin Lavronenko and Ivan Dobronravov as the father and son with so much in common, complete the picture.
Religious themes and imagery run throughout the film. Father’s return echoes partly the biblical story of the Prodigal son, another story of a father with two sons, except that here it’s the father who leaves and comes back (and not to such a forgiving welcome). The family’s first meal together is an exquisitely composed sequence of images that recalls Renaissance painting. Shot in a cold milky light, with the sober family seated precisely around the table and bread and red wine arranged in a very deliberate fashion on the table, this is a Russian ‘Last Supper’. In a later scene when Father, his face invisible in a hood, makes the two boys row him across a lake in the midst of a torrential rainstorm, Zvyagintsev seems to be harking back to even earlier sources; Charon, herding two unsuspecting souls to the Underworld.
But for all its cleverly – and very gracefully – composed imagery, ‘The Return’ is at its heart about human relationships, although utterly without the sentimentality that that phrase usually implies. Whatever experiences have scarred Father in his years away have made him almost incapable of reaching out to the boys in a vulnerable way. His behaviour to them veers from brutal to a kind of anguished sympathy, as if he is unwilling or unable to fully give vent to his feelings. His actual relationship to them isn’t really confirmed until the very last frame of the film. Yet even this doesn’t really offer any kind of closure; the atmosphere of mystery that has been evoked throughout is too strong. Like poor Ivan frozen with fear atop his tower at the film’s beginning, we’re denied the relief afforded by a climactic impact. Zvyagintsev holds us continually aloft in the grip of a yawning dread that remains forever unresolved.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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