- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Resolutely portentous rather than lucid, the Russian import “The Return,” booked exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, may have overwhelmed the competition with misanthropic gravitas when it won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival last September. A parable of family loss and estrangement that leaves little grounds for consolation, the movie begs to be interpreted as a bleak forecast for modern Russia.

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the movie begins with images of submersion and then sidesteps to vertiginous fear, stranding an adolescent boy named Ivan at the top of a lakeside tower. Abandoned by the comrades who grow impatient with his reluctance to dive, a shivering and humiliated Ivan must be talked into dismounting by his alarmed mother.

Another tower haunts the concluding episodes, when the same boy and his older brother, Andrey, find themselves on a remote forested island, companions of the father they haven’t seen for a dozen years. Still a toddler at the time, Ivan has no recollection of the hard-bitten stranger. This second date with perilous heights intensifies a kind of holiday from hell, spent with a sinister, enigmatic parent.

Ivan and Andrey, a compelling contrast of the truculent and flexible as embodied by Ivan Dobronravov and Vladimir Garin, respectively, live with their mother and grandmother in a crumbling apartment block in an unspecified and seemingly underpopulated city. The father (Konstantin Lavronenko) shares no confidences with wife, mother or audience upon his return. He simply turns up with wheels and some kind of appointment to keep.

Taking charge domestically, as if by natural right, the returnee offers to drive the boys somewhere for a camping and fishing excursion. He doesn’t like Ivan’s attitude, which resembles his own peremptory behavior. He kicks Ivan out of the car on one occasion and orders the brothers home by bus on another. The changes of heart punctuate a journey that culminates at the mystery island, where father proves to have affinities of some kind with Long John Silver. He has a treasure buried there.

Don’t expect much more illumination about father’s past or motives. The boys speculate that he might be a gangster. It would be just as plausible to mistake him for a former sailor or commando. Settling for a soldier of fortune with plenty to hide is the safest option.

The upshot is metaphorical eeriness rather than factual revelation or gratification. The boys are left with a burden of misery, failure and ignorance to brood about. The implication: The generation of Russians destined to come of age in the years ahead will find itself in a similar fix. Like Ivan and Andrey, the young may be coming into a heritage so compromised and sordid that you wouldn’t wish such an inheritance on your worst enemy.

It can be intriguing to watch a filmmaker play such a desolate, tendentious vision close to the vest, especially if he has an expressive flair for settings that stimulate the shivers and recurrent fears of abandonment. Sooner or later Mr. Zvyagintsev will probably get the opportunity to wed his talent for atmospheric apprehension with a more conventional and generalized melodramatic format. Art-house patrons may enjoy staking an early claim on his ability to orchestrate dread.

There was a genuinely painful aftermath to the movie: Vladmir Garin, the resourceful and sympathetic Andrey, died in a swimming accident last summer. Knowing this may intensify the apprehension already contrived for every scene on or near the water.


TITLE: “The Return”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, with sustained ominous atmosphere and episodes of family conflict; occasional profanity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Screenplay by Vladimir Moiseenkno and Alexander Novototsky. Cinematography by Mikhail Kritchman. Art direction by Janna Pakhomova. Music by Andrey Dergatchev. In Russian with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes


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