It has sometimes been said of the films of Russian master Andrey Tarkovsky that they make you feel like you are right in the mud with his characters. His films (such as Mirror, 1974) give us the sensation not only of a natural geography but also a geology: the heavy, sedimented time-periods through which people drag themselves.
Newcomer Andrey Zvyagintsev is obviously a keen student of Tarkovsky. His brooding feature debut The Return is the kind of movie that makes you want to have a bath immediately afterwards. It mires us in the dirt and fog of its world as well as in the impenetrable mysteries of its characters.
Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) and Andrey (Vladimir Garin, who tragically died shortly after filming) are two young brothers who live with their mother (Natalya Vdovina). Suddenly, after a twelve-year absence, their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) appears. When he announces his plan to take his sons on a trip, the melancholic mother acquiesces.
Do not expect a reassuring humanist story of father-child bonding or reconciliation here. This father is a brutish character of few words. Whatever the enigmatic business he is involving his sons in, it seems to be shady. Indeed, we may even wonder whether he is truly the boys' biological father.
The Return is a deliberately obscure but relentlessly hypnotic film. Zvyagintsev drains the potential elements of suspense and revelation from the plot as surely as (with the help of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman) he drains any vivid colour from the images.
What remains is an almost mythic, Dostoyevsky-like tale of generational conflict set against a bleak, barren backdrop. The eerily minimal sound effects and music score (by Andrey Dergatchev) enhance the bone-chilling atmosphere.
In an era where filmmakers are too often forced to talk the talk for publicity purposes, summing up their movies in a pithy or banal proverb, Zvyagintsev refuses to say very much about his artistic intentions here. He is right to believe that a film speaks in terms that are peculiarly cinematic, not literary or theatrical. If it can be easily put into fifty words or less, perhaps it should never have been made into a film in the first place.
So The Return is a work that expresses itself in the soulful solidity of its faces and landscapes, and the haunting crispness of its images and sounds. When cornered by one especially persistent journalist, Zvyagintsev would only declare that his film is about "the metaphysical incarnation of the soul's movement from the Mother to the Father". Which is as good a way of any of saying: just watch the movie, and you will intuitively understand it.
© Adrian Martin July 2004