Publications

photo by Alexandr Reshetilov/afisha.ru

Murky but deep

03/12/2004

 

"The Return" is kind of like a dinner guest who's so interesting that you're willing to invite him over even though you know he's going to show up without his pants on.

  
THE RETURN
Original title: Vozvrashcheniye.
Directed by: Andrei Zvyagintsev.
Written by: Vladimir Moiseyenko, Aleksandr Novototsky.
Cast: Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Natalya Vdovina, Galina Petrova.
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman.
In Russian with English subtitles.

Related links: Official site
That is to say, it's a suspense story that violates the rules of polite storytelling — and yet it's so well done that you can't take your eyes off it. Threads of a mystery are woven through this strange, wonderful Russian tale, and so many are left unexplained that we have a right to feel absolutely frustrated by the end. But at the same time, the movie is transfixing from start to end. You feel you've had a glimpse of greatness.

The story starts with two fatherless brothers in rural northwest Russia — on the day their father mysteriously reappears. After 12 years away, he has come to spend the night with his wife and then take the boys — who have no memory of him and even suspect he's an impostor — on a fishing trip.

The Return  
Not for a moment do we believe this is an ordinary fishing trip. Something is going on beneath the surface whose outlines are barely apparent. The father is carrying out some kind of business under the cover of a family fishing trip — which, he warns the boys, must be done within three days. "Do you want me to disappear for another 12 years?" he taunts when they question him about it.

Andrei — the older brother, who has learned to fit in with the boys in the neighborhood, partly by joining in the taunting of younger brother Ivan — laps up his dad's attention. Ivan — maybe 10 years old, much softer looking, and never manly enough for his father — remains aloof and suspicious. Huddled in a tent on the first night of their outing, Andrei calls Ivan's wild suspicions stupid. "Wait until he gets his knife out in the middle of the forest," Ivan answers. "Then we'll see who's stupid." One of the many things to ponder about this story is the difference between the two boys — will the alienation that makes Ivan an outcast in the world of schoolboys be what saves them in the harsh world of their dad?

  The Return
You see everything that happens on the surface, and that's a stunning enough story by itself, but much of the underlying story is unseen, left to your speculation. Clues are strewn in your path — phone calls made, hints dropped, people visited, a mysterious box unearthed — and you can give them any explanation from the most innocent to the most sinister. The sense of danger hangs over every moment; on the other hand, the dad may be telling the truth when he says the boys' mom just wanted him to come see them more often. It's frustrating and tantalizing at the same time.

Still, as unresolved a thriller as "The Return" may be, it still works on many levels — as a drama, a mystery, a psychological portrait, even a beautifully filmed ode to life in a deeply picturesque part of the world. Everything from the sky to the trees to the people to the water takes on shades of navy blue, forest green and battleship gray (reminiscent of Oregon, Maine or coastal Canada), matching the dark, seductive mood of the film. View the film as a piece of art, a Hitchcockian thriller, a Lynchian non-sequitur, or a double coming-of-age story — but don't miss it. Different people will see different films in "The Return," but all of these films will tug at the heart and the mind in some way.

 

Joshua Tanzer
www.offoffoff.com