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THE RETURN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Volodya Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Natalia Vdovina
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Audio: Russian stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Kino
Features: The Return: A Film about the Film, trailer, stills galleries
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: October 19, 2004

"Why did you come back?  Why?"

Film ****

Deep within the wilderness of the Russian male conscience, there lies a heart of stone.  Manifested in the image of man and father, this dearth of emotions and warmth may be attuned to existence in the harshest of worlds and climates, but when confronted with the yearnings and dependence of a child, such a stalwart proclivity is fated for failure.  Those rugged qualities that might ensure survival in a cruel or unforgiving world are ill-equipped to handle the willowy fragility of a child's psyche.

Such is one message imparted to viewers of Andrey Zvyagintsev's exceptional debut film, Vozvrashcheniye (The Return, 2003).  At times chilling, at times heart-breaking, The Return chronicles the reappearance of a long-absent father into the lives of two Russian boys, forevermore altering the ruling discordance of their lives.  Andrei (Volodya Garin) is the older sibling, content to bully his younger brother Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov, who bears an uncanny resemblance of Haley Joel Osment).  However, these taunts are merely symbolic gestures, the typical sibling rivalry meant to establish one brother's superiority over the other.  In truth, Andrei and Vanya have only each other and provide one another with the moral and emotional support that is lacking in the absence of a true father figure.  Both brothers live with their mother and grandmother, but these adults are superficial background figures who do not figure prominently into the children's world.

During one cool summer's day, following the latest sibling spat, the brothers run home, hoping for their mother's maternal guidance in settling a dispute.  However, she is preoccupied, her thoughts falling upon the stranger resting in the bedroom, a man she reveals to her two stunned sons as their long-absent father (Konstantin Lavronenko).

This sudden re-emergence of their father after twelve years fills the boys with curiosity, excitement, and yet tenuous wariness, too.  Neither boy remembers the father, although a precursory glance at an old family portrait seems to support the contention that the man is really their father.  Of the brothers, Andrei is the more accepting son, eager for his father's attentions.  Vanya, however, is more withdrawn, masking his own suspicions and lingering questions.  Where has the father been all this time?  Why has he returned?  How long does he plan to stay?  More importantly, will he leave or abandon his family again, and if so, what value is there in making an emotional investment that may only lead to later disappointment?  Vanya's caution is borne of an intimate sense of insecurity - doubting his father's sincerity, Vanya does not dare to open himself to being hurt emotionally and fears what the new father's presence will mean to the delicate dynamic between the brothers.  Vanya, in this sense, begins to erect an invisible barrier about himself, openly defying the father and refusing to yield to any display of true acceptance of his father.

At the behest of the mother, the father decides to take both of his sons on a camping trip for a few days in the Russian wilderness.  There, surrounded by the base elements of the primal world, they might develop the natural bond of instinctive trust and familial interdependence such as regularly exists between fathers and sons.  Within this Jungian landscape, they will camp, hunt, fish, and sleep together.  Perhaps these few days together do not remedy a dozen years of absence, but they represent a positive step towards eventual reconciliation.

Regrettably, this new authority figure in the boys' lives is not the loving and protective father the sons may desire but is instead a cold and stern-hearted man.  He remains distant and terse with the boys, expressing little sympathy for their plights or petty complaints.  Early in their trip, during a respite in a small town, local bullies shove the boys around and steals their money while the father stands at a side, watching but not interfering.  Observing the boys’ timidity and reluctance to defend themselves, the father later remarks, as though in condemnation, "You’ve got no fists."

The father insists that his sons refer to him as "dad," and when Vanya stubbornly resists doing so, tension slowly builds between father and son.  An unexpected consequence of Vanya's unwieldy behavior is that the brothers begin to switch roles - Vanya becomes the more dominant personality, whereas Andrei becomes almost subservient, eager to please the father and to win his approval.  The boys' struggle to love this new parental figure, versus their instinctive need to express the inevitable individuality and independence of young boys upon the cusp of manhood, soon becomes The Return's centrally driving drama, essentially a tense contest of wills between father and sons.

Nevertheless, the stark and isolated environs of the wilderness compels the boys to remain dependent upon their father for transportation, shelter, and survival.  And despite his indifferent parental skills, the father does try, in his own curt and limited manner, to show that he cares for his sons.  Under his tutelage, the boys learn how to pitch a tent, how to prepare fish, and how to steer a boat.  Despite themselves, they learn basic survival skills for living in the wild.  Through his actions and his words, the father ultimately teaches them how to truly fend for themselves and, perhaps most importantly, how to become real men.  In essence, the father is a practitioner of a "tough love" style of parenting, however crude.

Beyond that, however, we never learn for certain about the father's background.  Is he a pilot, as the boys’ mother implies?  Is he a former soldier?  Was he an incarcerated criminal just released from prison?  Was he an exile, perhaps?  What is his link to the mysterious and remote island to which he brings his sons, an island of which he possesses cryptic foreknowledge?  Born of the wild and returned to the wilderness, perhaps he is a symbolic totem of the children's fears, a mark of their rite of passage.

To this end, The Return is a strongly metaphorical film.  It can be experienced simply as a film about a camping trip between a father and his sons.  However, as with such multi-layered films as The Lord of the Flies, Deliverance, or Roman Polanski’s Knife on the Water, the allegorical textures and psychological subtext of The Return run far deeper than a superficial interpretation as a family camping trip.

In one sense, The Return can be considered an abstract and symbolic interpretation of the demise of the Soviet Union.  If the father represents the power and at times overbearing oppressiveness of the old communist state, then each son might represent individual separatist factions, straining for their own degree of independence yet still retaining a subconscious yearning to belong to a more essential unity  - the Otechestvo, or fatherland (the symbolic family).

Along another context, The Return can be considered a religious parable with undercurrents throughout the film.  Various baptism images recur through the film, from the leaps of faith which commence the film, to the perpetual precipitation that lingers over the family, to the final images of the father himself upon the lake waters.

The leitmotif of the father as a Christ figure abounds in the film.  Even in his introduction in the film, we see him lying prone upon a bed in a posture eerily reminiscent of the famous Mantegna portrait "Dead Christ,” a posture that is again repeated near the film’s conclusion.  The father’s family portrait, which the boys seek out in the attic after he re-appears, is pressed within pages of biblical text.  The father’s arrival (or “return,” actually) might be akin to that of a savior, rescuing the children from the emotional vacuum and faithless drifting of their lives.  His eventual fate in the film and its effect on the brothers could then suggest a parallel to Christ’s own self-sacrifice that his children might learn the value of love and brotherhood.

On a psychosexual level, the recurring imagery of a tower as phallic symbolism completes an archetypal cycle within the film.  The Return opens with a scene in which a group of children, save for Vanya, dare to leap from a water tower into the cool lake many feet below.  Vanya refrains from doing so, gripped by paralyzing insecurity and a fearful premonition of death or injury.  This scene is reiterated in a crucial variation at the climax of the film.  As Vanya is eventually comforted by a nurturing mother in the opening sequence, so the closing sequence centers upon a confrontation between Vanya and the father upon a tower, reflecting a suggestive oedipal struggle at the film’s core.

However one chooses to interpret The Return, this remarkable film remains, at its core, a devastating portrait of familial love gone awry.  The worst crime that a father can commit upon his family is to betray the trust of his children.  Likewise, the worst fear of any parent is that his child will utterly reject him, either as an authority figure or as an emotional pillar of support, or both.  For a child, though, the fear of abandonment by a parental figure is most paramount.  The Return addresses all these fears and much more.  Andrey Zvyagintsev's film, concealing layers upon multi-faceted layers of plausible interpretations, truly rivals some of the best works of Ingmar Bergman or even Andrei Tarkovsky, irrefutably the finest Russian director of the latter twentieth-century.  That this film was the director’s first feature-length film is all the more amazing and serves notice that Zvyagintsev may be the first great Russian director of note for the twenty-first century.

Video ***

True to form, this Russian film, while technically a "color" film, has been virtually bleached of all colors.  The cinematography consists mostly of shades of miserable grays, pale blues, and sepia tones.  Suffice it to say that The Return does little to alter the perception of Russian cinema as being terribly bleak and downright depressing.  That being said, the somber hues do match the film's overall, darkly psychological tone well.

The video transfer is fair but occasionally displays a blocky texture, especially in very dark shots.  Grain is moderate but nothing unusual for a Russian film.

Audio ***

The Return is presented in Russian stereo.  Optional English subtitles are available (albeit with varying degrees of accuracy).  The soundtrack is mostly muted with bare traces of ambient sounds.  Dialogue is at the forefront with only rare accompaniment by an eerie and minimalist musical score.  Included in the score, appropriately enough, is Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor.

Features ***

The Return: A Film about the Film (63 min.) is a documentary focusing on The Return from the casting process to the actual production through the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival.  The film’s director Andrey Zvyagintsev is prominently featured, appearing in various interviews or narrative passages.  Actors Konstantin Lavronenko, Ivan Dobronravov, and Natalia Vdovina also offer their thoughts about the film, their characters, and various themes within the film.

The latter portion of the documentary is concerned primarily with “making of” aspects of the film, as related by various members of the crew.  Composer Andrei Dergatchev discusses how the music has been tailored to the film’s images, while cinematographer Kritchman discusses various difficulties in setting up or filming certain scenes.  Numerous clips from The Return accompany the comments in this documentary.

The documentary includes several outtakes.  There are a couple of deleted scenes - one a near-accident during the road journey and the other an afternoon scene in a diner.  Volodya Garin’s screen-test and various outtakes are also shown.  The documentary concludes with footage of the director and cast accepting the prestigious Venice Film Festival Leone d’Oro (Golden Lion) award, presented to the best film at the festival.

Generally, this documentary is an excellent supplement to the film, although its bright colors and cheeriness may come as a surprise to anyone who has just finished watching the film.  I recommend watching the film first, as the documentary does give away various plot elements.

Aside from this documentary, the bonus features include the theatrical trailer and three photo galleries.  A “black & white stills” gallery contains the twenty-five photographs shown at the end of The Return.  A small “set stills” gallery contains nine black & white and color photographs taken on the set during the film’s production.  Lastly, a “color film stills” gallery consists of thirty-one stills, apparently taken from various scenes in the film itself.

On a sad final note, sixteen-year old Volodya Garin drowned in Lake Osinovetskoe near St. Petersburg on June 25, 2003.  This was the same lake on which key portions of the movie were shot.  The date was only two months before The Return's eventual successful premiere in Venice. 

Summary:

Many a director may go through an entire career without creating a film this good.  Yet, The Return is only Andrey Zvyagintsev’s directorial debut.  If he can maintain the huge promise shown in this film, he may well become Russia's greatest director since Andrei Tarkovsky.

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