Two teenage Russian boys have their father return home suddenly after being absent for 12 years. The father takes the boys on a holiday to a remote island on a lake in the north of Russia that turns into a test of manhood of almost mythic proportions.
Over the last year or so father-son relationships have been in the cinema spotlight in movies such as Frailty, Finding Nemo, The Hulk and more recently the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow. This small trend hasn't only been only confined to Hollywood. Andrey Zvagintsev's remarkable debut film The Return is the third such story to emerge from Russian cinema over the last year after Koktebel and Aleksandr Sokurov's Father and Son, which is currently screening at the Russian Film Festival which is touring nationally.
Going on holiday with parents is an ordeal for anyone let alone a couple of kids who haven't seen their father in 12 years. Brothers Andrey, Vladimir Garin, and Ivan, Ivan Dobronranrov, have been living without theirs for most of their young lives. One day 'Father', Konstantin Lavronenko, turns up out of the blue and spirits them away in his clunky old car. Bewildered and resentful, the boys travel by road and sea with their stoic old man who seems more intent on testing them – by pushing the limits of their physical and emotional boundaries – than making up for lost time. This is one tough love dad.
The Return is a striking film and superbly executed, its 'Tarkovskian' film roots also apparent. Taking his cues from the Russian master, director Zvagintsev set out to make 'a mythological film [about] human life' and he achieves this in spades by embracing both the wild elements and foreboding of his locations in Northern Russia. The permeating coldness makes for a great counterpoint to the firey emotions burning underneath this emotionally loaded story about family dysfunction. Everything the characters feel, we feel. Who needs dialogue when you've got a script and acting as good as this. Zvagintsev's use of film language is supremely confident and really, everything is in its right place here.
"Zvagintsev's use of film language is supremely confident."
The Return is beautifully composed, its cinematography both stark and poetic as is its delicate sound design. And the information that is left out of the story (like where has Papa been for so long?) only serves to heighten the tension and mystery of the characters and setting. Even with his first film Zvagintsev is confident enough to know that some of the best mysteries in life – and film – are best left unsolved. Less is more.
Comments by Jaimie Leonarder: Two brothers struggle emotionally with the return of a father they have never known. This first feature by Andrey Zvagintsev is an incredible achievement on a budget of less than half a million dollars. The two brothers Andrey and Vanya are played with much conviction by these young actors. Only knowing their father from a 10-year-old photograph, they now embark on an awkward and sometimes brutal reunion that carries this film into the road movie genre. This is certainly not Tarkovsky and yet it is quite lyrical and mythical. Although there is a little too much ambiguity for ambiguity's sake. Still, the rustic beauty of the lakes and forest and the fading color of the film stock are just one of several qualities well worth experiencing.