Father and Son

(Otets i syn, Alexander Sokurov, Russia/Germany/Italy/Netherlands, 2003)


The first images of Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son are, to put it mildly, arresting. Two nearly naked male bodies, belonging to Aleksei (Aleksei Nejmyshev), who has just awoken from a nightmare, and his unnamed father (Andrej Shetinin), move together in a close-up, intimate embrace. More than anything, it recalls the beginning of Alain Resnais’ classic Hiroshima, mon amour (1959).

Sokurov takes us immediately into a shadowy realm between heightened dream and daily reality. He insists on the lack of distinction between his central characters, almost their interchangeability – especially as the father hardly looks any older than his son. And, above all, Sokurov invites us to meditate on the mystery of intense, familial love – a love in which, in this case, the father sees (and touches) in his son the trace and memory of his long-dead wife.

At a famous press conference at the premiere of Father and Son in Cannes, Sokurov became intensely angry at suggestions that he had made a homo-erotic work, or intimated a hidden tale of incest. Since that moment, the film has endured much vulgar mockery – jokes about how this father and son appear to be on the verge of a romantic Hollywood kiss as they gaze, tenderly and at length, into each other’s gleaming eyes.

But Sokurov is well past making even satirical reference to such popular genres as romance or melodrama. His official website entreats his disciples to regard cinema as art rather than industry, and to swap mindless entertainment for spiritual contemplation. No figure since his countryman Andrei Tarkovsky has so successfully managed to make the grubby field of international co-production serve an agenda of transcendent expression.

Even those (including myself) sympathetic to Sokurov’s often stunning work may have a hard time turning a blind eye to every element of ideology that he so haughtily dismisses as irrelevant to the true appreciation of his art. Just as his Russian Ark (2002) seemed too keen to erase the complexities of political history for the sake of a lyrical lament over the good old days of aristocratic museums and empires, Father and Son never halts its seductive flow to wonder why all its fleeting female characters exist either behind windows, in still photos or as off-screen voices.

But Sokurov makes no concessions to the kind of critical thinking he doubtless regards as fashionable and pernicious. He effortlessly dives into his own, philosophically dense universe of sensations and perceptions. At this level, Father and Son is a little like a Terrence Malick movie: its entire ninety-seven minutes is devoted to evoking and expanding the painful, poignant moment when the ecstatic fusion between these two sensitive men must give way to the reality of time and change.

It is hard to imagine that Sokurov will ever top his sublime Mother and Son (1996), the first part of the trilogy that is to end with Two Brothers and a Sister. (Is Mother and Daughter so beyond his powers of imagining?). That portrait of love, showing a son caring for his dying mother, unfolded within a remarkably abstract rendering of a lush, natural world.

Father and Son treads a newer aesthetic path within Sokurov’s career. Firstly, it makes much more dynamic use of editing than any previous Sokoruv film I have seen (although I recall Nicole Brenez’s description of Mother and Son as, already, a "lesson in montage".) Secondly, it mixes up fragments of diverse places (principally in Russia and Portugal) to create a crystal-clear but wholly imaginary habitat.

Much of the film, in fact, occurs on a rooftop, where the men cavort while paying scant heed to the street life below, let alone the laws of gravity. Just like in Frank Borzage’s silent masterpiece Seventh Heaven (1927), the gesture of balancing on a precarious plank between buildings is not a bid for suspense, but a way of getting closer to the Beyond.

MORE Sokurov: Elegy of a Voyage, Moloch

© Adrian Martin November 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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