The Return (2003)
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005
Last few decades weren't very kind to Russia or Russian film. Collapse of Communism brought the end to the state-sponsored film industry and almost completely erased Russia from the world cinema map. It took almost decade and half for Russian films to raise some kind of interest outside national borders or give hints that Russian cinema might return to its former glory. In 2003 this happened with THE RETURN, drama directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev. This directorial debut of a notable Russian film and TV actor won Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival.
The plot takes place in a seaside town of Northern Russia where teenager Andrey (played by Vladimir Garin) and his younger brother Ivan (played by Ivan Dobronravov) are surprised to find their father (played by Konstantin Lavronenko) returning from twelve years of absence. They don't know their father nor the reason why he left the family and even more intrigued when their loving mother (played by Natalya Vdovina) agrees to let them join father on a fishing trip. In next seven days they slowly discover that the real purpose of journey is far from recreational - father uses every opportunity to put boys to various mental and physical ordeals, which come to the climax at the remote island. Boys react to abuse differently - Andrey wants to connect with cold and distant paternal figure while Ivan mistrusts father and defies him at every opportunity. Escalating conflict between the two will result in tragedy.
THE RETURN could be best described as the embodiment of "less is more" principle. Shot with low budget and minimal number of actors, this film puts Northern Russian locations to excellent use. As the brothers' journey goes on, traces of civilisation - usually decayed artefacts of once mighty empires - are replaced with ethereally beautiful forests and lakes, lovingly recorded by Mikhail Kritchman's cinematography. But these sights of beauty gradually become more menacing, underlining the frailty of the boys, who are helpless both confronted with nature and their increasingly tyrannical father. All those beautiful sights hide dark secrets that, just like the secret behind father's long absence, are better not to reveal.
The casting - which was of utmost importance in this kind of film - is excellent. Konstantin Lavronenko as father is perfect as dark, mysterious and authoritative force that, despite his questionable acts, could not be put into Manichaean classification of Hollywood characters. Vladimir Garin, who tragically died shortly before the film's premiere, is also very good, although somewhat overshadowed by younger Ivan Dobronravov who stands out as more rebellious of two brothers.
The film's main weakness is what could have been its main strength - the main source of dramatic tension is mystery about father. The audience doesn't know why he left the family, what he did for living and what his ulterior motives for the trip or boys' abuse are really are. After the predictably melodramatic end, the audience is left guessing and THE RETURN looks unfinished. This void was often filled with various speculations and interpretations, especially among Western critics who saw the film's story as religious allegory or tacit condemnation of President Putin's neo-authoritarian policies. Regardless of its flaws, THE RETURN deserves praise as more than simply a good film. Its title is quite fitting, because it represents magnificent return of a great cinema tradition to the world stage.
RATING: 7/10 (++)