On 6 September 2003, the film The Return received the highest prize – "The Golden Lion of St. Mark" – at the awards ceremony of the Jubilee 60th Venice International Film Festival. Previously, two other Russian directors had been awarded the same prize: in 1962, Andrey Tarkovsky – for his debut Ivanono detstvo, and in 1991, Nikita Mikhalkov – for the film Urga (Close to Eden). The Return was the first such project in the field of cinema for the television channel RENTV; it was also the director’s debut in full-length film.
The original screenplay by Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky was titled You, and told the story of two men, Archil and David, who – now past 40 – sit in their New York apartment and recall events from their childhood.
For Konstantin Lavronenko and Natalia Vdovina, who play the leading adult roles, this film was their first major work in cinema. Zvyagintsev invited them to feature in The Return, in part out of his desire to engage actors who were little-known on the big screen.
In search of actors for the roles of the two boys, the film-makers considered approximately 600 candidates in 6 months. For both 13-year-old Vanya Dobronravov of Moscow and his 15-year-old partner Volodya Garin of St. Petersburg, The Return was their first experience in cinema.
Unfortunately, exactly a year after the first shot of the film was taken, Vladimir Garin drowned in Osinovetskoe Lake near St. Petersburg. He died on 25 June 2003, the very day when the film crew gathered to watch the finished picture in Moscow. In March 2003, shortly before his death, Volodya had come to Moscow for the dubbing of his scenes, but did not watch the complete film after deciding to wait for the premiere.
The production of the film lasted two years, including six-month periods dedicated to the search for settings and actors, and to the director’s revision of the screenplay. The actual filming lasted for 50 days during summer and autumn 2002.
The first filming trip took 40 calendar days, only 3 of which were rest days; filming occurred on all of the other 37. Upon his return to Moscow, Zvyagintsev informed the producer of the necessity of another expedition insofar as the team had not managed to shoot several important episodes. And thus were laid the beginnings for a second trip. The second trip involved a small group, who filmed for 10 days in autumn 2002.
On the advice of cameramen who worked with submarines, the underwater panorama (the first shot of the film) was shot much later, at the very beginning of November when the first frosts hit. At this moment, the water becomes much more transparent. The opening shot was taken on Lake Beloe, very close to the birthplace of Sergey Esenin. The group consisted of four people: Zvyagintsev, Krichman and two cameramen-submarine operators. Daylight was already significantly shorter and after each take they had to wait while the mud kicked up by the scuba-diver’s flippers settled. The shot was taken with a camera protected by an underwater housing. In the evenings, upon reviewing the footage at the hotel, the group decided again and again upon one more shot. In this fashion, just one shot – the panorama above the sunken boat – was taken over the course of three days.
The primary filming occurred from 25 June 2002 until the first days of August on the shore of the Lake Ladoga: in the city of Vyborg, the town of Zelenogorsk, the town of Priozersk, on the Karelian Isthmus, and on the Gulf of Finland. The second expedition took place in September 2002. According to various calculations, the budget of the picture comprised between 400,000 and half a million US dollars.
Three international film festivals immediately expressed their wish to include the finished picture in their programs: in Montreal, Toronto, and Locarno. Having earlier sent out cassettes with the film to selectors, the producer decided upon Locarno and even submitted a written reply. But at the last moment, he received a letter from Moritz de Hadeln, head of the Venice International Film Festival, stating his desire to see The Return on the official program in Venice. Hadeln’s letter changed Lesnevsky’s original decision and aroused the ire of the Swiss towards their Italian colleagues.
The film was received enthusiastically in Venice. At the end of the competition screening, the applause that followed lasted fifteen minutes. The day before the awards ceremony, a previously unscheduled screening was organized, which usually happens with films that are already widely considered to be favorites. The president of the jury, 88-year-old director Mario Monicelli, despite internal pressure on the part of his Italian colleagues to give the highest prize to Marco Bellocchio (Good Morning, Night) and his own stated commitment to support national cinema, gave the highest award to The Return.
The Venetian triumph of The Return was twofold since it had already taken prize for best director's debut – "The Lion of the Future". It was unprecedented in the history of the Venice International Film Festival that these two prizes went to the same director.
The Return was shown at many film festivals and received a host of awards. Among The Return's accolades, nomination for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's "Golden Globe" for best foreign film stands out. The picture also received Russia’s nomination for an Oscar in the category of “best foreign language film,” but did not make it into the list of top five nominees.
Even before the closing ceremony of the Venice International Film Festival, the film was purchased by more than thirty countries, thus producing a significant return on the initial investment. Ultimately, the film was sold for distribution to 76 different countries.
The European success of The Return had significant effect in Russia: the Minister of Culture, speaking about the film in the middle of September, announced that henceforth a quarter of all the money allocated by the state to cinema would be allotted to debutants.Among Russian audiences, the film aroused lively interest, both on television and in cinemas. The Return was released at a moment that was rather unfavorable in terms of the distribution of domestic movies, and yet – with the exception of the large cinema chains – it achieved relatively good box office results in its limited release.