THE RETURN directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, written by Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky, produced by Yelena Kovalyova and Dmitri Lesnevsky, with Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko and Natalya Vdovina. 105 minutes. A Ren Production. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (August 20). For venues and times, see Movies, page 76. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
As someone who's been on film festival juries, let me note for the record that festival juries do strange things. The armload of festival prizes that have attached themselves to The Return are a puzzlement. It's not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but five prizes at Venice, including the Golden Lion for best film and the best first film prize, is a bit much, not to mention FIPRESCI mentions at Palm Springs (which screens all the films submitted for the foreign film Oscar) and Locarno.
Visually very striking, thanks to the compositional eye of director Andrei Zvyagintsev, The Return resembles Tarkovsky without the mystical charge. Shooting in the dense forests north of St. Petersburg, Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman at times seem to be attempting to put as many different shades of cold blue as they can into each frame.
At the same time, The Return is narratively oblique and emotionally opaque. It forces the viewer to play connect-the-dots with the characters' emotional arcs, but doesn't bother pointing out where the dots are.
Two brothers (Vladimir Garin and Ivan Dobronravov) live with their mother. Their father, vaguely remembered with the aid of old snapshots, returns and takes the boys camping. They fish, brood, argue, brood some more. The younger son wants to go home to Mom.
Perhaps the juries were in an anti-Hollywood mood. Hollywood films would have a predetermined narrative line marching straight toward reconciliation, while Zvyagintsev has a very different path in mind, and the ending is unexpectedly abrupt.
Which is to say that The Return is an admirable rather than a likeable film. You want more emotional wallop than the director is prepared to give, and it operates on an almost abstract level.
Konstantin Lavronenko's performance as the father is particularly problematic. He's presented as some sort of thug, and whether because of the writing or the performance, his sudden return seems completely unmotivated. While we can see what he does, we'd like to know why.