The Return: A Frayed Family, an Ominous Fishing Trip
Review by Peter Bradshaw june 25, 2004 at The Guardian
It looks and feels like a classic, not just a Russian classic, but an English schoolroom classic like something by RL Stevenson or William Golding or John Le Carré.Andrey Zvyagintsev’s superb debut film about an errant father and his two sons was the resounding Golden Lion winner at last year’s Venice film festival, an award made piquant by the fact that its 16-year-old star Vladimir Garin was drowned shortly after filming in a terrible accident that mirrored the movie itself.
Already The Return seems canonical, as if it has been there all along: an old-fashioned, satisfying piece of storytelling which looks languorously beautiful, while at the same time fastening itself to your attention like the bite of a snake.
The terrors of childhood are the movie’s opening theme, as two boys, Andrey (Garin) and his quieter and more timid younger brother Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) are hanging out with a crowd of others in swimming trunks or underpants, daring each other to jump from the top of a tall tower into a lake. Andrey manages it, like all his buddies, and tauntingly shouts at Ivan to jump or be a “chicken”; but Ivan freezes with vertigo and has to be rescued by his mother.
This mortifying failure to prove himself a man is an augury of the film’s heartstopping climax, when Ivan has an elemental showdown with the figure long missing from his life: his father.
Ivan and Andrey have lived without him for 12 years, being brought up by their mother (Natalia Vdovina) and grandmother (Galina Petrova). But one day, holleringly running home after a fight, they are sternly told by their mother to hush because their father is upstairs sleeping. And that’s it. She does not offer them, or us, any explanation as to why he has been away for so long, and it becomes very clear that no such explanation has been offered to her.
Fascinated, the two boys peep round the door to see their recumbent, mythical dad and his image appears foreshortened, like a painting of Christ. That image is intensely Russian, like everything else in the movie, and it too is to echo the film’s final moments.
But it is the first and last time the father – played by Konstantin Lavronenko – is to look so peaceful or so vulnerable. He quickly establishes himself as a taciturn disciplinarian, exerting his authority as head of his long-deserted family without a syllable of apology or regret. All we know about him is that he has been in the military, and probably has contact with gangster types, because he has more money in his wallet than they have ever seen.
The meat of the story comes with the father’s announcement that he is taking the boys away with him on a fishing trip. It will make men of them, is the apparent subtext, after all the female mollycoddling, and he is to drive them up to the northern lakes. Here they find a mysterious island where their father has a metal strongbox buried in a ruined outhouse. The audience shares the boys’ sinking, scared feeling that they are just a convenient and expendable cover for the father’s criminal activities.
The breathtaking beauty of this landscape, utterly untenanted by human life apart from themselves, is at odds with its menace, which has been injected solely by the father. The man who is supposed to be protecting them is somehow their fiercest and most implacable enemy. His tests of their manhood seem like insidious acts of aggression. He has a habit of entrusting the older Andrey with his possessions, coolly inviting him to step up and be a man. He gives him his watch to time a fishing trip, and in a restaurant gives him his wallet, instructing him to pay the waitress: insisting Andrey imperiously call her over to the table rather than trotting meekly to the cash register, which was his first instinct.
In each case, these tests end in violence and dismay, throughout which the blank-eyed father, though utterly in charge of the situation, seems as untroubled by love or concern as a robot or a creature from outer space.
A second coming is what the movie is darkly and parodically all about, a second coming of a father whom the boys would love passionately if they were given the smallest encouragement. But they never are. The pain of their lives is not to be dissolved with any thawing or deepening of this father-son relationship; there are no “learning experiences”, and we are not invited to see this retrospectively from the points of view of Ivan and Andrey as adults. Everything is happening in the here and now, with no interpretative compass. Even the nature of the father’s shady dealings remains precisely that: shady.
The Return unfolds like a mysterious and disquieting parable with no moral, acted out on a beautiful but chilling canvas of pale watercolours. It is a mystical film, and in its forthright way a religious film, evoking Christ and the legend of Abraham and Isaac – but with something twisted and thwarted at its centre. The movie is suffused with the idea of a creator’s power without a creator’s love. Zvyagintsev has burst on to the world cinema scene as a vivid new talent.