This is a remarkably poignant and stylishly elegant film, especially for a debut
The 39-year-old Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev (a former actor and TV director) makes his feature-film debut a spectacular one with this highly symbolic drama. In its simplest moments it's about an absentee authoritarian father who returns one summer to test his young boy's manhood. It was the winner of the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Zvyagintsev's theme cuts through the current dysfunctional family problems in Russia by showing that the father (symbolic of the fatherland) has abandoned his responsibilities while the mother remained at home to take care of the family and is now head of the family (subsequently head of the dysfunctional country). The film centers around the strong feeling of Russian nostalgia a theme unearthed in a similar way by fellow Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who attempted in his films to find out about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots--especially in his 1983 masterpiece Nostalghia. The Return uses the family as a comparison with the events of modern Russia, as easily as it compares the desolate nature of the Russian countryside with the souls of the people.
The mysterious father (Lavronenko) whose name is never mentioned, suddenly returns after a 12 year absence (it is never established where he was or what he did, as he could be a military man home from the Chechnya war, a gangster, or just about anything). The boys live with their granny and harried mother (Vdovina), who only tells them he's their father and at an earlier date mentioned that he was a pilot. She now tells the 11-year-old Vanya (Dobronravov), who is nicknamed Shorty, and his teenage brother Andrei (Garin), that their father wants to take them on a three-day fishing holiday in his car. The boys don't even know what their father looks like, so they rummage through the house to find an old photo of him to confirm what their mother says. Though not certain if they like their dad, they are excited and anxious to get to know him.
Before the opening credits Vanya and Andrei are shown atop a high tower with Andrei's friends, and all the boys jump into the water in fear of being called a chicken and stupid if they don't, but Vanya chickens out and he refuses to climb down the ladder to go home with them as he freezes and is too scared to admit he's afraid of heights and too concerned that his peers will taunt him as a coward. He remains frozen atop the tower and it isn't until his mother comes at dusk to comfort him that he returns home.
The car ride is like a trip to hell, as the dad bullies the kids and in return expects absolute obedience and love and respect. Dad makes no effort to converse or even clue the kids in on his plans. The older kid tries his best to get along in a doting way, but the younger kid takes an instant dislike and things get ugly as a number of incidents take place including: Vanya has a fit in the restaurant and stubbornly does not eat just to spite his dad even though he's starving; the kids get jumped by two local teenage thugs when dad gives them his wallet to hold and though he sees the whole thing doesn't come to their aid until afterwards and then retrieves the wallet loaded with money--but is displeased that his kids have no guts to hit the mugger who stands sheepishly before them; the kids are given money to take a bus home and told the fishing holiday is over after the disgusted dad talks on the phone with someone we never know, but suddenly changes his mind for no reason at all and takes them off the bus as he tells them the holiday will be extended for a week; and, when Vanya complains that he would rather be fishing than riding in the car, dad cruelly leaves the youngster alone on the side of the desolate road.
This sets the stage for the three travelling companions to take a motorized rowboat to a deserted island somewhere in an unnamed lake in the north of Russia, where dad secretly digs up a trunk buried in a pit inside a ruined shack. All the mystery and bad will builds up and both boys are now confused and displeased with their dad, as Andrei for the first time openly shows his anger when he is slapped around for returning late from a fishing trip when there is no excuse since he was given a watch to know what time to return.
The return of the dad turns out to be a bitter experience. It's as if Zvyagintsev is saying you better not yearn for the strong authority figures from the past, they will only disappoint you like they did before. Though the Russian experience at present is a bleak one, at least the mother figure at home is a loving one and there to comfort your disappointments and fears. Though Zvyagintsev also points out that this lack of communication that continues from the past will be the death of all of them if they can't find a way to openly speak their mind and express their love, as the country will be sacrificed again by those who are too eager to please authority figures (therefore the director perceives Andrei as more of a coward than his younger brother for kissing up to his pig-headed dad).
The Return is always compelling even if it's a difficult story to figure out for sure what exactly is intended--which is done on purpose. It is superbly shot by Mikhail Kritchman, who captures the desolation in the cities and the shadowy beauty of the wilderness regions--giving it a spiritual tone. The acting by the wide-eyed boys and the ruggedly handsome father is first-class. The story is a little bit of everything from a road movie to a family drama to a psychological drama and thriller and biblical tale, and then it takes a surprising turn and becomes a survival of the fittest story (showing the father is not all bad and could be caring at times), and finally gets resolved as a tragic parable.
This is a remarkably poignant and stylishly elegant film, especially for a debut. Andrei Zvyagintsev is a director who has earned my deep respect and bears watching as a major new talent.