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Scene-by-Scene Metaphors, Each Showing Aspects of a Relationship. I Think.
I'm writing this as an adjunct to the other reviews here, which explain the premise of the film, as well as theorize about its meaning. It's not that I disagree, particularly, with the other (positive) reviews, it's just that I might have a different take on it.
After I watched this I thought about what I had seen. It occurred to me that all of the secondary characters--the funeral director, the undertakers, etc.--came off as utterly real, almost as if in a documentary. Granted the behavior of the funeral director is shocking to my American Midwest cultural bias. But I can well imagine even that scenario as something real in a poor Russian community in 1990.
What didn't add up for me, initially, was the behavior of the son. He didn't seem like a real character to me, until I thought about it for a while. He seems overwhelmed by his father's death. We see him overwhelmed by the minutia of burial details, but he is also clearly overwhelmed by the death. When the funeral director asks for socks for the corpse, he has no idea where they might be, and in his own father's home. (I lived in a different city than my father, but I knew where he kept his socks.) This incident, as well as others which demonstrate his unfamiliarity with his father's daily life, indicate to me that he did not have an intimate relationship with his father.
We know that the father was quarrelsome; he had a military career but, evidently, no military benefits/associations because he had quarreled with, presumably, his comrades or his superiors. Perhaps the father and son had argued and become distant. If not, a military career often takes a man away from home; that would be another reason why the son might not have been close to his father.
We certainly don't have any sense that he loved his father. What we see, it seems to me, is regret, and, perhaps, distaste for the way his father lived. I believe what we are seeing here is a story of a man who had a far from ideal relationship with his father. He is attempting to evaluate and assess their relationship. But he is as clumsy doing that as he is dealing with the business and bureaucracy of death.
I see each scene in the film as metaphors for different aspects of their relationship. Emotionally empty, distaste, confusion, quarrelsome, embalmed (static), and, finally, awkward.
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