Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev. Starring Konstantin Lavronenko, Natalya Vdovina, Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov. (2003, NR, 103 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 18, 2004
And you thought your family was rough. This debut feature from Russian director Zvyagintsev has netted a fistful of awards (among them the Venice Film Festival's Grand Prize), and five minutes in it's easy to see why. A pair of brothers, teenage Andrey (Garin) and younger Ivan (Dobronravov), climb atop some sort of abandoned tower hovering like a dead sentinel at the edge of a huge, impossibly placid body of water. The sky above is overcast – everything in the film is overcast – and the boys, along with some friends, dare each other to take the plunge. All but Ivan do so; he resists and sits sobbing and alone at the top until his mother (Vdovina) arrives to take him down. Later, he proves his mettle somewhat by attacking the leader of the kids who taunt his cowardice. The atmosphere is all gray: the landscapes (the film is set somewhere outside of Moscow where everything has the look of those decaying, post-Stalinist concrete-and-crap crackerbox hellscapes), the people, and, especially, the boys' father (Lavronenko), who returns home spontaneously after an unexplained 12-year absence. Silence has a shockingly loud voice in this film, and the wayward, ultimately unknowable father (whose first dinner with the family has him silently tearing a boiled chicken to bits with his bare hands) seems less a parental figure than some sort of ur-dad – a thickly muscled, Golem-like force of nature. He announces he's taking the boys on a fishing expedition the next day, and so he does, as Andrey attempts to know this strange epic of his bloodline and Ivan, sullen and distrustful, stews and steams and avoids any sort of path toward reconciliation. The fishing trip, as you might suspect, goes badly, and then goes to hell, possibly literally. You could view The Return as an allegory about the Soviet's own big, bad dad – Bloody Papa Joe – but I think it works even better if you discard those historical shackles and take it on its own simple (and ultimately horrific) terms. The acting, especially from the two young leads, is perfect; Dobronravov seethes while Garin placates, and Lavronenko's nameless father figure is at once godlike and an utter cipher. Zvyagintsev takes pains to provide few-to-no easy answers, and so the film ends up a haunting, vaguely Deliverance-like meditation on man and the wild and the wild-man. Mikhail Krichman's joyless is shot through with compositions so exquisitely drab as to be almost painterly (any thoughts you might be harboring about a jaunty visit to the bustling "new Russia" should be nicely squelched by The Return: Zvyagintsev's Great Bear is either dead or hibernating or nonexistent). This is nobody's idea of a happy family story, but it is a pristinely chilling depiction of familial meltdown in a post-Stalinist, Twilight Zone anti-place, the dark heart of heartlessness and mysterious parenting techniques.