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photo by Alexandr Reshetilov/afisha.ru

The Return: Movie Review

03/15/2004

 

The Return is something of a palimpsest in that it is layer upon layer. The film is basically a psychological thriller about a recently returned absent father and his two sons on a road trip. If you scratch a little beneath that surface, however, you discover a number of biblical allusions that may guide your thinking of the film. Scratch a bit more and you may find an analogy about Russian politics in a post-Soviet era. Still more scratching will reveal a metaphor of how people respond to the silence of God.

The surface story is about a father who has returned after twelve years. He's been gone so long that the boys have to dig out an old photograph to make sure it's him. He takes them on a short camping and fishing trip that turns into a major trek through the Russian wilderness on some unspecified business.

His two sons are suddenly forced to develop some sort of relationship with this stranger. The elder son, Andr
ei, is eager to please. He always agrees with his father and always obeys. The younger son, Ivan, is rebellious. He chafes even at calling him Papa.

Their father is not all that sympathetic. He offers no explanation for his absence. He is not warm or affectionate. He seems to expect their respect as their father, but does little to try to reconcile with them. He is strict, even cruel, in his discipline. One is never really sure that he even wants these two boys with him, although one also is never sure he does not want them around. Perhaps he has lessons of life to teach them, or perhaps he will only teach them fear.

The film is loaded with r
eligious imagery. The first time we see the father he is sleeping on a bed, staged very similarly to Andrea Mantegna's Fifteenth Century painting "The Lamentation over the Dead Christ". When the boys go up to the attic to find the old photo of their father, it is in a Bible next to a drawing of the scene of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac. At dinner the father passes out wine and food in such a way that takes the mind to Jesus' final meal with his disciples. The very set up of the story brings to mind two of Jesus' parables of a father with two sons (Matthew 21:28-32 and Luke 15:11-32).

Yet the film really isn't an exploration of any of these themes, rather they are all present in such a way that allows director Andrei Zvyagintsev to create
a mood that isn't quite spirituality and isn't quite religious and isn't quite mythological. Add to this the sense of mystery which is increased by the film's failure to answer all (or perhaps any) of the main plot questions.

One of the most difficult layers of this film grows out of the two sons' responses to this prodigal father. How should they respond to him? Should they welcome him and love him? Should they resent his absence? Does he need to prove himself to them? Do they need to prove themselves to him?

It is very similar to people's reactions to a perceived silence of God. The loudest silence perhaps was the Holocaust, but that silence can be found in personal lives as well. When God is known after such a silence, how do people respond? Do they seek God's approval as Andrei sought the father's approval, or do they rebel as Ivan did? Is it God who must prove Godself, or we who must prove ourselves to God?

The difficulty with this layer of the film, from a Christian perspective, is the extreme distance of the father. If we begin to think of the father in this film as a God-figure, God comes out aloof, petty, cruel and tyrannical. This is a father that we don't blame Ivan for not wanting to be reconciled with. The Christian message, however, is that God does want reconciliation with God's children and goes to great lengths to foster that reconciliation.

It may be that all the layers of this film, as well done as each is done, end up detracting from the film overall rather than enhancing it. There seems to be too much under the surface for us to really appreciate any of the layers. It is usually a good thing when viewers leave a film with questions about the meaning and what the film had to say. In The Return, however, there is so much to suggest meaning that the viewer can be overwhelmed and distracted by other layers and lose what meaning can be found.

 

Darrel Manson
www.hollywoodjesus.com