The Return is a film archetypically Russian in its enigmatic story and elemental imagery. It’s possible that ambiguity became so inbred in the Soviet arts during the 20th century that unadorned realism simply disappeared as an approach to film. It’s also possible that the theme of The Return is too painful to confront directly. Regardless, the film sustains interest and suspense with its masterful symbolism and continual small surprises.
Two young brothers living with their mother and grandmother arrive home one day to discover that their father, absent for 12 years – probably the entire life of the younger brother Ivan – has returned. He sleeps a bit (perhaps after having sex with his wife, perhaps not) and insists on giving wine to his sons, a gesture disapproved but not prevented by the women. He announces that he and the boys are going on a trip, ostensibly to fish. The boys are overjoyed.
They are also completely unprepared for the lack of care they receive and the lack of information about destination, location, or duration encompassed by the announcement of a “trip.” Andrei, more adventurous due to his age and elder status, takes pictures and goes with the flow of his father’s terse manner. Ivan, apprehensive with unspoken and if spoken, unanswered, questions, is defiant. They drive through desolate landscapes to desolate places. The father behaves mysteriously. The boys stumble along, arguing about compliance with this stranger’s orders and only occasionally agreeing about how to cope with their situation.
Finally they arrive by boat at an island, uninhabited and unmarked except for a tower. The father takes off on foot for undisclosed reasons and without a word as to how they will subsist in this place. He digs up a trunk, extracts a box, and secretes the box in the boat, all unobserved by his sons, who have moved out to find worms for their fishing rods. Eventually, a violent conflict erupts. Distraught, Ivan runs to the tower and threatens to jump. His father attempts a rescue but fails. Death alters the terms of the trip, which ends, as it began: destination unknown.
This minimal story derives its force from the challenges faced by the two boys, in particular continual abandonment. Abandonment of family defines the father. The elder brother abandons the younger constantly. The father abandons both periodically even as he has them in his charge. On one level, the film is presenting the primeval dares that presumably force boy children to become men by risking their own and threatening others’ lives. On a deeper level, the film grips with the terror of being left alone to fend for oneself without preparation, warning, or obvious means. The unremitting tension among the family males conveys the pitiless theme: no one can count on anyone for anything and growing up means confronting and surmounting this ineluctable fact. The pain of this reality is barely mitigated by the character of the mother, an undemonstrative but loving parent. She’s absent however, for most of the film, during which the males enact ancient rituals of dare, risk, order around, fight, figure it out, or die.
The film’s imagery and tone reinforce the foreboding and dread of the story. Water – placid, drenching, brooding, dangerous – dominates. The first scene occurs at a shoreline that invites death-defying dives into unknown depths. Failure to conquer the fright that wells up from this prospect is punished with abandonment in a torrential downpour, a vision of absolute misery that will recur. Water is the source of food, but only after major effort. Water is the moat between life at least somewhat familiar and complete break with civilization. This prevalence of water is not typical of Russian fables, pictured more commonly in dense forests or on endless steppes.
Although the film is in color, the chiaroscuro lighting creates an impression of blackness and a landscape of stark outlines that symbolize the bleakness and danger of the human activity in the foreground. This director has studied his Bergman and Russian predecessors. His artistic skill occasionally breaks through the surface of the film, with scenes whose elegant composition is stronger than the simple action taking place. The father’s darkly seductive, yet almost expressionless face, is an element the director places and watches with a painter’s care.
In fact, the film concentrates on faces with singular intensity. The human face can be a source of meaning and explanation and comfort. Not here. Only the children reveal their emotions in smiles, scowls, grimaces, tears. The adults move their eyes but transmit almost nothing a child could comprehend. They are a mystery when viewed through a child’s eyes, the vantage point of this film. It bodes well for the director that the sentimentality and self-pity that lurk in this perspective are completely absent in this work.
Has the father survived a gulag and returns to teach his sons to do the same? Or perhaps the military, once guarding a god-forsaken outpost where something life-preserving was buried and must now be retrieved and bequeathed? Did this director experience the treatment by parents so eloquently portrayed? Whatever its intellectual origin, this film exemplifies the paradox at the heart of successful art. It melds light and shape and color that grasp with irresistible emotion in order to create a vision of life whose only triumph is having survived to tell the tale.