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Christian de Chalonge
Two teenage Russian boys have their father return home suddenly after being absent for 12 years. The father takes the boys on a holiday to a remote island on a lake in the north of Russia that turns into a test of manhood of almost mythic proportions. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
On the island, Ivan bandages his hand after it gets injured. In the next shot, the bandage is on his other hand. See more »
[on-screen caption: Sunday]
[boy falls in the water, then floats up]
Jump as we agreed! Who climbs down the ladder is a cowardly wanker.
[swims to the shore]
Boy on Tower:
Go on, Vityok. You're next.
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During the end credits, there are still photos. See more »
Brilliant--yet not a work on par with a Tarkovsky or a Kozintsev
Russia has produced some of the finest filmmakers of the century--Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Grigory Kozintsev, and Sergei Paradjanov. Hollywood (with the exception of Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Mallick) is dwarfed in the company of these giants. Andrei Zvyagintsev follows in the footsteps of these giants. The opening shots remind you of Tarkovsky and the bleak, barren landscapes of Kozintsev. Yet "The Return" with all its finesse and depth of subject matter does not hold a candle to the works of the four aforementioned Soviet filmmakers. I was fortunate to see the film at the Dubai film festival yesterday.
At the most easy level, the film can be interpreted as a chronicle of two children chronicling (with a help of a diary written by two male siblings) the events of a week with their father that facilitates their transformation from childhood to manhood metaphorically.
At a more complex level, the film can also be interpreted as a political film--with the father figure representing the strong Communist USSR and the death of that state. The two sons can be interpreted as one representing the section that accepted subjugation by the state and the other that rebelled against the state and demanded freedom and democracy. Today both kinds of former-USSR citizens yearn for the "FATHERland" of the past for different reasons.
At yet another level, the film provides the option of being interpreted in religious terms. Is the father figure any different from Christ coming to the world to help the world, and die in the process to be accepted by those who believe and don't believe. The film is scattered with clues that afford this interpretation: the fish symbol, the storm in the sea, the walking on water (by the boys on a stone below the water line), the week ends on Sunday (the day of Resurrection), the late return by the boys and the rebukes that follow (Jesus admonishing disciples for falling asleep), acceptance through death, the first sight of the father lying asleep resembling a crucified and dead Jesus, the last supper (at home), the baptism by rain, is Andrei (the elder boy) named after apostle Andrew, the leaves under the car as palm leaves for Jesus entry into Jerusalem... the list could go on. One reason is that most Russians are deeply religious individuals. At the same time one could argue that all these were coincidences and there is no Biblical reference in the film.
The brilliance of "The return" and the films of the other four Russian directors are outstanding because they too could be entertaining at different levels and thus appeal to you 50 to 80 years after they were made. Like Tarkovsky used Bach's Requiem in "Solyaris", Zvyagintsev also uses Mozart's Requiem in the "Return." The Requiems afford to highlight somber spirit of the tales and add divinity. The sudden rains, the sound of trains are not new--Tarkovsky used these effects in "Stalker." "The return" seems to hark back to Tarkovsky and Kozintsev's Christian Marxist imagery.
The film is in color--yet the colors are muted with only the red car standing out. Kozintsev refused to film "Hamlet" and "King Lear" in color; Tarkovsky also used muted colors and sepia tints often.
The most jarring fact is that the young actor who played the elder brother died in the very lake months after the film was made.
The stark, spartan, evocative film deserved the Golden Lion at Venice film festival awarded this year. By a coincidence, precisely 40 years ago Venice had honored Kozintsev's "Hamlet"! The brilliance of "The Return" is all pervasive--acting, direction, photography, editing, screenplay and yet the film is not as great as a Tarkovsky or a Kozintsev.
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