FILM REVIEW; A Frayed Family, an Ominous Fishing Trip
By Dave Kehr on January 23, 2008
The winner of the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in September, ‘’The Return’’ is the stunning feature film debut of Andrey Zvyagintsev, a 39-year-old Russian director who here renews the grand tradition of Russian cinematic mysticism epitomized by Andrei Tarkovsky.
With a story line at once enigmatic and psychologically acute, ‘’The Return’’ draws on biblical motifs to tell a story of Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) and Andrey (Vladimir Garin), adolescent brothers who have grown up in the care of their mother (Natalia Vdovina) in a small, depressed town, their father having disappeared sometime after Vanya’s birth.
The boys come home one day to discover that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) has returned without a word of explanation. He is a hard, independent man with skills that suggest a military background, perhaps as a soldier in Chechnya. He immediately proposes to take the boys on a fishing trip, a prospect that excites the older Andrey, a withdrawn boy who vaguely remembers his father and seems eager to please him, but enrages Vanya, a natural rebel who never knew his father and resents him for it.
The fishing trip turns out to be a cover for an apparently nefarious but never explained mission of the father’s. As they drive through an increasingly desolate, depopulated landscape on their way to a rendezvous at a remote island, the boys and their father work through a series of challenges and confrontations.
The father – remote, impossible to please, harshly judgmental and violently punishing – is a godlike figure to the boys, and possibly to the director as well. The father’s power is symbolized by the knife he always carries, and though the standard phallic associations are present in the image, it also seems to represent a biblical imperative: a call to sacrifice that echoes Abraham’s. Vanya’s ultimate gesture of revolt is to steal his father’s knife, a transgression that seems to unleash the climactic disaster. (A different disaster came after the film was finished, when the young actor who played Andrey died in a swimming accident.)
Visually the film is a marvel, full of unsentimental images of a living, pulsing natural world. The boys’ mysterious trip takes them from one body of water (a relatively benign-looking lake, where their mother is still in charge) to another (a treacherous, roiling sea, which the father — is he a sailor? — seems able to dominate).
At both points, Vanya must climb a tower to prove his courage, and the consequences in both cases suggest how far he has come in his journey to adulthood.
Mr. Zvyagintsev creates a most moving tension between his archetypal themes and the bristling specificity of his characters. The film, which opens today in New York, is at once highly naturalistic and dreamily abstract, playing out its mythic themes through vibrantly detailed characterizations (and remarkable performances by the entire cast). ‘’The Return’’ announces the arrival of a major new talent.