Catching the big one with Dad: A Russian director's debut
By J. Hoberman on January 23, 2008
Winner of the same Venice Film Festival that gave a decidedly mixed reception to The Dreamers, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return is also suggestive of a lost era—the highly crafted allegorical Eastern European art films of the ’60s and ’70s.
Zvyagintsev, a former actor and TV director, locks on to a compelling story that has both psychological and political resonance. After an absence of 12 years, the father of two adolescent boys abruptly materializes in the home of their pretty blonde mother and, by way of getting acquainted, insists on taking his confused sons on a fishing trip. Rough-hewn, handsome, and casually brutal, the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) seems to be a proponent of tough love. Fifteen-year-old Andrey (Vladimir Garin) is eager for paternal attention, but 12ish Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov)—prone to be picked on, overly attached to his mother, and scared of heights—is considerably less enthusiastic.
The battle of wills commences when the reconstituted family stops in some backwater and Dad sends Andrey to find a restaurant, a task that takes him hours. After a stressful meal, Dad gives the brothers his wallet and then has to demonstrate his fearsome mettle when they’re mugged by local urchins. Disgusted Dad is about to send Andrey and Vanya back on the bus to their mother but inexplicably changes his mind. (Is he intentionally cruel? Distracted? Crazy?) At this point, the movie too makes an enigmatic shift in location. Expertly shot by Mikhail Kritchman, The Return unfolds in a somewhat emptied-out world. The look is austere but lush, the color slightly leached. The boys live in an underpopulated settlement in a stylishly povera house; the town where they stop for lunch is largely devoid of human presence; their father takes them through wilderness to a seemingly deserted island. While the natural world is photographed with an elementalism strongly reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky, what’s most concrete in the movie are the performances. The kids are terrific. While Andrey is wide-eyed and incredulous, pinched, angry Vanya turns out to be the tougher of the two. No less surprising, the taciturn father is not completely uncaring.
The Return begins as a mysterious quest, shades into a discomfiting thriller, then a survival story, and finally a tragic parable. Primordial and laconic, this remarkably assured debut feature has the elegant simplicity of its title. The mode is sustained, the structure overt. Some may be put off by the movie’s cool technique and boldly closed form, but it clearly announces Zvyagintsev as a director to watch.