When Indiewire writer Erica Abeel sat down in 2004 with first-time director Andrei Zvyagintsev to talk about The Return, a film that had caused quite a stir at the Venice film festival and won the Golden Lion, she was in for a challenge. Her desire was to make him talk about how to interpret the symbolism of the film, but Zvyagintsev was in no mood for that. At one point, his reply was, ”there is no clue. You either perceive it or not”.
When it comes to The Return, you can read all kinds of things into the movie. Is it a statement on modern Russia? Does it say something about older Russian literary traditions? You can also choose not to read much into it at all, because this is a very powerful drama as it is.
Growing up without a father
Ivan and Andrei (Ivan Dobronravov, Vladimir Garin) are brothers who have grown up without a father. Then one day the man (Konstantin Lavronenko) shows up after having been absent for 12 years. Immediately, he asserts his role as master of the house, and Andrei is quick to fall in line. Ivan is more suspicious, wondering why he’s back. When the father announces that he wants to take the boys on a fishing trip, it becomes the beginning of a strange journey where the man constantly tries to show them who’s in charge while also dealing with secretive matters that may have to do with the reason why he’s been gone for 12 years. Ivan becomes increasingly defiant toward his father…
The dad is an enigma
Zvyagintsev had done some work for Russian television when he got the chance to do his first feature. After reading the script, he found it to be pretty straightforward, but then he realized that he couldn’t quite put it behind him. It stuck, so obviously that became his choice; even if he’s unwilling to talk about the themes or interpretations that interested him, there was likely something more to it than a simple story about the relationship between a father and his sons.
The dad is an enigma and we learn nothing about him, his motivations or agenda. Instead, he turns into a symbol of absent fathers and toxic masculinity, a challenge for two boys to handle, and they do it differently. Andrei is older but always the one who buckles under pressure, be it from this man who is essentially a stranger to them both, or their friends who early on in the film force him to take part in bullying Ivan. The younger boy is stronger in the sense that he refuses to accept what he considers unfair treatment; the film has several compelling scenes where Ivan has to deal with anger, shame and the consequences of standing up for what he believes.
Young Dobronravov delivers the film’s finest performance, but it’s also effective because of how obviously close he and Garin became during the shoot; tragically, the latter died only 15 years old in a drowning accident after the making of the film. This is a portrait of brotherly love that’s hard to forget, made even more emotional by a series of still photos from the journey that ends the film.
The locations play a big part. The father brings his sons on a trip to a huge lake surrounded by a a pine-tree forest. Lake Ladoga, just outside Saint Petersburg, fills that role to great effect, magnificently captured by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman’s camera. The landscape is very Russian the way I imagine it, beautiful but isolated and stern, perhaps reinforcing theories on what this struggle over manhood really stands for. Isn’t there a lot of Putin over the father, authoritative and intimidating, heavily involved in nefarious affairs? Well, Zvyagintsev wouldn’t let us know either way.
The Return 2003-Russia. 105 min. Color. Produced by Dmitry Lesnevsky. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Screenplay: Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksandr Novototskiy. Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman. Cast: Vladimir Garin (Andrei), Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan), Konstantin Lavronenko (Father), Natalia Vdovina (Mother), Galina Petrova.
Trivia: Original title: Vozrashcheniye.
Venice: Golden Lion, Best Director.
Last word: “We spent half a year looking for them, and in the end I was simply lucky – I found two genius kids. They were absolute professionals. And of course they were both unbelievably talented. I was worried that I wouldn’t find them, because you could see from the screenplay they had to be great natural actors. Over six months I personally spoke to 600 boys, but in the end we picked two we had seen in the first three weeks. With Vanya, I saw straight away that this was a grown-up in front of me. He sat down and looked at me intently, and I had a feeling that it was me who was being auditioned. Later he told me that from the very first moment he knew he wanted to work with me. It’s me who should have been saying that!” (Zvyagintsev, BBC)