Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return: Sublime Mysteries

in 15th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Sheila Benson

As a pair of furious, fighting boys, the adolescent Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and his younger brother Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) race home, spitting complaints and fury, they’re stopped dead at the door by a single sentence from their mother:

“Be quiet, boys, your father’s home.”

To the two, who’ve built their lives for 12 years around that father’s absence, the news is a thunderbolt. Their lithe, blonde mother (Natalia Vdovina) takes it with a cigarette on the front porch, and a remarkable amount of silent reflection.

From the bedroom doorway, the two peer at this powerful sleeping figure (Konstantin Lavronenko), splayed on his back, his bearded stubble graying at the chin. Then they race up to the attic and find, in among the pages of a book illustrated with religious engravings, a single photograph, unmistakably of the same man with both of them, when Vanya was about two. (In a film as precise as this about every one of its images, it would be foolish to ignore the symbolism of this book — and its semi-hidden location in their home. Or not to recognize the father’s posture when we see it in just this position, a second time.)

At dinner time, the boys, their mother and grandmother wait silently at the table until the room is filled with this overpoweringly male presence, and their father says, “Well, hullo.”

He tears the roast chicken into portions with his hands, pours wine for the women and says the boys should have some as well. Andrey takes the privilege immediately and asks for more (refused); Vanya, not easily seduced, makes a face. And so, the roles are cast in this elemental struggle for the return of a long-absent father to his family, and, crucially, his sons.

The FIPRESCI Palm Springs prize-winner is also a return to the classic cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and Larissa Shepitko, to an almost ecstatic closeness with nature and to a seemingly simple story which actually teems with metaphor, if not outright myth.

If this sound forbidding or heavy going, it’s not meant to: Siberian born Andrey Zvyagintsev’s astonishing first feature has an immediacy and a directness which envelops us from its first, prophetic sequence, on a precipitous diving tower.

Encouraged by his wife, the nameless, archetypal Father sets out the next day to take both boys for a few days of fishing — combined with some mysterious “business” he has to do. (What has passed between husband and wfie on the night of their first reunion, we are not to know. Rigor, rigor. Humor of any kind is also sacrificed in this strictness.)

Privately, the boys are as hell-bent as we are to penetrate his mystery. What has kept him, this dozen years? Andrey is content simply to accept him and begin to build something real out of the man he has imagined for so long. He contents himself with photographing everything and everyone around him, making this returnee “real” again.

Whiny, sullen, suspicious, Vanya is another story. His mother’s pet, he challenges this interloper at every turn, while his tantrums and sudden about-faces come dangerously close to exhausting our patience as well. Since Vanya will be at the heart of the film’s crucial action, all this ground-laying is as deliberate as it is risky.

Their father is strong as a board, principaled, demanding and clearly the product of bitterly harsh years. If we begin to suspect prison, Zvyagintsev doesn’t help us out much, although the father’s refusal to eat fish because he’s had his fill of it, “far away,” seems clue enough. He certainly seems to live by a rigid code, and whether it’s prison or military, it’s all the same to these boys, increasingly chafing under his barked commands.

Meanwhile, they drive deeper into the Russian far north, with its endless horizon line and its lowering clouds. (Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography of these jaw-dropping vistas is exquistely integrated; nothing is ever simply for effect.)

In properly mythic fashion, they battle the elements, until abruptly, their father finds his destination, a desolate boat house. There he hires a boat with an outboard, teaches them to caulk it with pitch, and steers them straight toward that horizon line, and an island he seems to know.

It’s as good a place as any to draw a veil on the action, whose shocks are so immense it would be desecration to reveal even a minute of them.

What is fascinating to turn over — and over — in the picture’s vivid after-life, are the rough, touching attempts of this emotionally armored and guarded man to find a way to re-connect with and to instruct these boys who will follow him to manhood.

He does it as men do, with examples not words, and as the strength in the film flows from one male character to another, it’s clear that he has been able to stamp them, in an elemental way, with some of the disciplines they will need.

Not enough can be said about Zvyagintsev’s masterful work with his brave trio of actors, except that having been an actor himself must have helped. Not a wrong note or an erratic glance passes between the boys, while Lavronenko’s work reveals layer after layer, each time you see it. (It’s not a film for a single visit.)

A final thought: you can hear audiences grumble over the director’s refusal to reveal a crucial “something” on that island. Nonsense. To do that (as the original screenplay did), would turn the film away from the universal and the elemental into something profoundly commonplace. “The Return’s” mysteries are too sublime for that.