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THE RETURN (NR) (2003)

Kino International

Official Site

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Producer: Dmitri Lesnevsky

Written by: Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksandr Novototsky

Cast: Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Natalya Vdovina, Galina Petrova


If the movies have told us nothing else, they’ve taught us that the wilderness is a place where major changes and epiphanies are reached among the characters involved. I’m not sure if it has something to do with the clash between the artificial qualities of human modernism and nature’s unyielding, often harsh reality, or if it’s just that the unpredictable mood of the wild gels nicely with life changes, but in the movies, shit tends to go down in the woods. If a filmmaker needs some kind of catalyst to set the plot in motion, he or she always has the wilderness as a reliable backup plan.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Russian film The Return understands how important a wild setting can be. The Return (a nominee for the foreign language film Golden Globe this year) follows the reunion of two boys with their father, a man who has been inexplicably absent for 12 years and whom they only know through a single photograph taken when they were small children. Cold and distant, the father (we never get his or the boys’ mother’s name) nonetheless insists that the boys take a camping trip with him. The older boy, Andrey (Garin, who died soon after filming ended), finds himself excited at the prospect of getting to know his father. On the other hand, Ivan (Dobronravov), the younger brother, resents this stranger who has suddenly come back into their lives, unapologetic for his irresponsibility as a father but still demanding obedience from his sons. The writers use this duality as a way to represent both sides of expectation, how one part of us idealistically hopes for an uncomplicated fairy tale ending, even as the other part of us wants retribution for the pain endured to get to this point. At the same time, the boys’ reactions are not simply used as narrative shorthand, but instead are firmly founded in each boy’s personality, in effect building their characters for the audience while still staying true to the plot of the story.

Leaving behind the mother (beautifully played by Vdovina with a shell-shocked acceptance of the confusion around her), the father and sons pack into a station wagon and head for the Russian wilderness. It’s a beautiful landscape, but the colors are just a little bit off, like the moments before a tornado hits, when the electricity in the air emphasizes some colors to a ridiculous extent while others are all but washed out. Zvyagintsev films the surroundings with camera pans so slow that you can’t help steeling yourself for whatever’s next. The feeling conveyed by these shots is something like inevitability, but they are so deliberately paced as to give the feeling that the world is turning without us while we wait for the next step in the story’s evolution. It’s an effect that’s both chilling and reassuring. What little music there is in The Return is this ethereal arrangement of strings and chant-like vocals, but instead of soaring and overwhelming the film, it is coupled with the cinematography very softly, almost like it’s being carried on the wind instead of being piped in from a studio booth. Zvyagintsev’s attention to mood here is meticulous, rewarding the audience with ambiance that feels organic and unconstructed.

Once in the wilderness, the three characters’ goals begin to clash. Andrey is doing everything he can to ensure that this is a pleasurable experience for all involved, while Ivan makes no effort to hide his distaste and resentment toward his father. The father, meanwhile, alternates between moments of tenderness and instances of unsettling callousness. Lavronenko plays the father as a man who knows he has failed his children, but whose idea of himself won’t allow him to make amends. Instead, he tries to cram all of life’s little tough love lessons into a single weekend trip, but forgets to include the fatherly love that gains trust, coming off as a rigid, unfair authority figure. Lavronenko’s performance is a masterwork in subtlety, combining an unforgiving archness with the flashes of fatherly fear that come when your kids are in danger.

The Return is bookended by tense scenes on tall structures (a diving board at the beginning, then a watchtower at the end), and by arranging the story this way, the filmmakers are making it clear that “the return” in question really refers to that moment when we have to turn back and face the monsters under the bed so we can defeat them and begin our journey into adulthood. Before the film is over, a major event has occurred that will shape who Ivan and Andrey become, and despite the downer of an ending, The Return emerges as one of the most empathetic films I’ve ever seen about the father-son relationship. Deadbeat though he may be, the father, through some cosmic chain of events, has returned home to be there when his boys become men.

—Cole Sowell

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