The Return marked the first appearance of director Andrey Zvyagintsev on the international scene when it won several awards at Venice, including the Golden Lion. It is rare that a first feature (following television dramas) is so accomplished and Zvyagintsev seemed to appear fully-formed as an international arthouse director – something confirmed by the three further features during the next ten years. It’s significant that this was no young tyro but a former actor who began to work in television in his late 30s. Not trained in film school he claims to have learned his craft by watching the great auteur directors – Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky etc. His age is significant in that he grew up as a teenager and young adult during the last decades of the Soviet Union so he has lived through the transition to ‘modern’ Russia. Growing up in Novisibirsk in South-West Siberia, the major city of Russian Central Asia before moving to Moscow he would certainly have been conscious of landscape and climate – two of the distinctive features of The Return.
The film’s production was funded by REN-TV, the independent commercial channel that first offered Zvyagintsev directing work and the script was initially intended as a thriller. Zvyagintsev decided to jettison many of the plot elements producing instead an enigmatic arthouse narrative. Ironically, the film’s festival successes made the director into a star in Russia where there is still a great deal of prestige attached to ‘film as art’, certainly more than to commercial cinema. His win at Venice placed Zvyagintsev alongside Tarkovsky, the last Russian to win a Golden Lion in 1962. In broad outline the plot offers the ‘return’ of the father after an absence of 12 years to his family in a small coastal town. This comes as a shock to his two sons. The youngest, Ivan, was only an infant when his father left and his brother Andrey was only a couple of years older. The two boys have different personalities and this becomes important in their reactions to their father’s appearance and his subsequent actions. These include the adventure holiday he decides to take them on while leaving behind the boys’ mother and grandmother.
The boys have no idea where they are going and it isn’t long before they realise that they are being ‘tested’ in some way – subject to a ‘learning by doing’ approach to father-son bonding. While Andrey tries to adjust to this, Ivan is reluctant to the point of rebellion. No explanation is given as to where the father has been for 12 years. Has he been in prison? More likely he has been in the army – his treatment of the boys seems like a military training approach. I won’t spoil the narrative, but the plot elements from the thriller that do remain (phone calls to an unknown person, what has been described as a Hitchcockian ‘Macguffin’ – a mysterious object) do ratchet up the tension. We know something is going to happen. All of this is a big gamble for the director. He is reliant on three sets of creative elements – the three central performances, the environment (landscape and weather) and cinematography/sound/music. It is because each of these three is so well handled and excellently co-ordinated that the open-ended narrative works. The budget was only $500,000 so there would be little possibility of re-shoots and CGI to correct mistakes.
The final section of the film was shot on and around Lake Ladoga (the largest lake in Europe) in the Leningrad Oblast. The lake is so large that it feels and looks like an inland sea. Although it isn’t that far from the main centres of ‘European Russia’ it can still feel like a remote location. It’s difficult to articulate the power of landscape in Russian cinema but it is central to the work of many of the great Russian directors. Characters have a long way to travel, many parts of the vast country are under-populated, the ‘continental’ climate offers extremes of weather. The enormous skies and clear vistas offer a contrast to the ‘urban’ and bring audiences closer to the mythological and religious experience – our time in the cinema becomes an experience akin to 40 days and nights in the desert.
Since audiences are denied that obsession of commercial cinema that produces ‘closure’ – or at least a defined question or puzzle – in The Return, readings tend to turn to religion, mythology and allegory/metaphor. Several commentators refer to the father’s behaviour as ‘abuse’. I’m not sure that is helpful. There is no evidence that he wishes to harm his sons. On the contrary he wants to build relationships but his approach is wrong for the context. In Russian terms this might be a commentary on masculinity, on the failure of the rigid military/ideological discipline of the Soviet Union – or it may be a commentary on biblical themes whose potency is re-emerging in modern Russia. I don’t as yet have a strong view on any of these possibilities. The imagery (courtesy of DoP Mikhail Krichman, responsible for camerawork on each of Zvyagintsev’s four features) is so powerful (especially in conjunction with Andrey Dergachev’s music) that at this stage I simply want to enjoy being enveloped by it. Only The Banishment to go now and then I’ll reassess across the four films. The Return is a stunning début film.
Here’s the trailer: