When reviewing examples of meditative cinema you often find yourself getting bound up in cliché. Not just in the terms you end up churning out (haunting/contemplative/ethereal et al) but in the reference points you turn to. Some people stand as such totemic examples of this brand of film in their national cinemas that you can’t help but consciously refer to them. Japan, you think Ozu. Sweden, you think Bergman. Iran, you think Kiarostami. Belgium, you think the Dardenne’s etc etc, and so it goes with Russian cinema, where the name Tarkovsky looms long over subsequent works.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s debut feature The Return was as subject to this as any recent Russian feature in the wake of its Golden Lion win at 2003's Venice Festival. Critics chose to make Stalker (1979) the main frame of reference, and you can see where they were coming from. Like that picture, The Return employs a muted colour palate, where most images are drained of vibrancy to the point where every colour seems to be a variant on blue or grey, the emptied provincial towns, looking shut down in a perpetual loop of dull bank holidays, decaying warehouses creating a dystopian atmosphere echoing Stalker’s ‘The Zone’ early in the film, and of course both films are framed within a foreboding journey and discovery template. Equally valid arguments though could be made for comparing the film with other art house road trips such as Theo Angelopoulos’ Landscapes in the Mist (1988) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s stunning mist-strewn evocation of the Italian Po Delta in Il Grido (1957).
Like most films of this ilk, the outward narrative of The Return is stripped to a bare bones approach and is all the better for it. The film concerns two brothers Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) a mummy’s boy on the cusp of adolescence and Andrey (Vladimir Garin) a few years older and determined to impress his peers. One summer day they return home to be informed that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) unseen since they were toddlers, has returned and is intending to take them on a fishing trip to make up for lost time.
Rather than a heartfelt family reunion though, the father is met with immediate suspicion, especially by Ivan, who attempts to test his father’s patience from the off and questions his motives for returning. Not that his suspicions are completely unfounded as the father acts cold and brusque, toying emotionally with the brothers and lambasting them for perceived weaknesses in their characters.
The first half of the film takes place largely in the confines of the fathers 1980s Gaz Volga (imagine a Volvo made with Iron Curtain spit and gristle cost cutting economy rather than Swedish proficiency), and concentrates on the less ecstatic aspects of family road trips, the boredom of confinement, the monotony of unvarying landscapes and the resulting shortened tempers of those caught up in this scenario.
As the film progresses, a sense of menace and dread begins to take hold as we are invited to share in the brothers’ suspicion of the increasingly authoritarian actions of their father. By the time the trio arrive at their fishing destination on a secluded mid-lake island, this ominous atmosphere builds towards an almost inevitably crushing conclusion.
The film invites itself up as a emblematical template for varied analytical approaches, be that theological (with the father’s introduction to the film purposely framed to echo Andrea Mategna’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ and the misty hooded crossing of a lake bringing to mind Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx), psychoanalytical (the whole parental relationship dichotomy being a field day for Freudian scholars) or allegorical (certainly native viewers may be drawn towards an analysis in which the old guard of the USSR has a traumatised relationship with contemporary Russia).
I found taking the film at face value perfectly rewarding though. The strained relationship creating a perfectly intriguing premise. I found it reminiscent of when you would visit friends whose father’s you found overly strict as a child, and you stand there witnessing these relationships wondering what their motive was, is their father a cruel man? Does he detest the responsibility of having children? Or is he simply trying to teach important lessons in a slightly misguided way? Making sure the child has the necessary attributes of a ‘man’ so that the world can’t take advantage? This is the kind of scenario played out here. The film provides a steady stream of intimations that the father has an ulterior motive for the trip (an eventual mcguffin), and gives very subtle hints as to the reasons for him being missing for 12 years, allowing the viewer to piece together their own backstory of sorts.
This was a stunningly rewarding film to view a second time. With hindsight, character motivations appear clearer and in the case of the father, more forgiving than our initial viewing of him as a stern beast of a man with the resulting actions having all the more devastating an impact as a consequence. A large part of this can be put down to Konstantin Lavronenko’s performance which is commendably nuanced behind a poker faced façade.
Unfortunately having knowledge of the film's production provides an extra sense of melancholy to its proceedings as Vladimar Garin suffered a bitterly ironic death in a drowning accident not long after completion of the film. The fact casting an inevitable weight and long shadow over the picture.
Predictably we return to Tarkovsky. His own debut Ivan’s Childhood (1962) ends up providing one of the most apt comparisons in the end. The innocence of youth cut short, the brutality of responsibility being forced onto unready young shoulders. If the responsibility of being a 21st century Tarkovsky is to be pushed upon Zvyagintsev’s own shoulders, then with this and his subsequent work so far, he’s doing a creditable job.