A modern masterpiece. That is the only reasonable way I can describe this emotionally-draining but profoundly rewarding new Russian film by debutante director Andrey Zvyagintsev who is being rightly compared to the great master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. A suspenseful family drama on the exterior, “The Return” is marked by its austere economy, but Zvyagintsev makes such minimalism resonate deeply with mythological and religious symbolism. Which also means that the film is not to everyone’s taste – those not fond of deliberate pacing will be less impressed. Others will savour every shot, every dialogue.
The story is basic archetype: Two young brothers, Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), are reunited with their nameless twelve-year estranged father (Konstantin Lavronenko) and are taken on a road trip that will symbolise rites-of-passage, test of manhood and the deep-seated anguish of the boys from not having a father in their lives. At the start of the film they ask their nameless mother (Natalya Vdovina) where he came from and she solemnly answers: “He just came.” As their literal and metaphorical journey continues, the younger boy gets further apart from his new-found father. The boys' differing relationships to their father (Andrei is obedient and eager to please while Ivan suspicious and reluctant to be initiated into manhood) is brought into intense focus - who is the father and why has he returned? Where has he been so long? Why does he hate fish and fishing? Is he dangerous to his children – a madman? The suspense for the boys is part of charm for the audience and both will not get easy answers.
The essence of “The Return” is in its isolated locations and its tiny cast of characters. This keeps the story personal and increases our involvement with the characters. The director and his cinematographer create a scrumptious visual feast that is stark and drained of colour. In addition to the obvious representation of the characters, there is the potential for religious symbolism which can be read into the film's climax as well. The photography is stunning, with a poetic melancholy that makes the film appear to have been shot only at dawn or at dusk. Low industrial hum buried in the sound mix precedes one of the film's biggest confrontations. A triumph in sound design, “The Return” confirms yet again its adherence to its minimalist roots.
Featuring stunning craft and technique, I am not surprised that “The Return” won the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. It is a film of quiet power and is extra special in marking a spectacular return for Russian cinema.
- by Adnan Khan [Rated 5 out of 5]