THE RETURN (Vozvrashchenie) A Russia (106 mi) 2003 d: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Why did you come back? Why? Why did you come get us? You don’t need us. We were fine without you, with Mom and Gran. Why did you come back? Why did you take us with you? What do you need us for? —Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov)
Described by this first time director as “a mythological look at human life,” this is one of the more starkly austere and emotionally spare films one could see, completely absent of anything unnecessary, but always direct and to the point, given metaphysical implications, reminiscent of an earlier, somewhat similar film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s DISTANT (Uzak) (2002) that accentuates an excruciating loneliness, as the feelings in this film are so grim and remote, like a poetic glimpse into the human soul. Remarkable for its spare storytelling that relies upon long, wordless sequences, the beauty of its stark reality is shockingly emphasized, like a Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness journey into the unknown, where one comes face to face with their ultimate fears. What’s also surprising is the amount of unanswered questions raised by this film, which remain unresolved mysteries through the end, deeply entrenched in a primal ambiguity. Structured into a series of episodes, the film marks seven days, each identified by intertitles, beginning with the introduction of two young brothers, Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), ages 15 and 13, who bicker and fight, like brothers do, but they’re also symbiotically attached, cut from the same cloth, demonstrating an intense closeness. An early scene shows a group of young boys jumping off a tower into the sea, calling anyone who can’t do it a coward, so all but the youngest succeed, leaving Vanya temporarily stranded atop the tower, unable to face his fears. Hours later his mother (Natalia Vdovina) climbs up there to console her child shivering in the cold, offering maternal grace and a warm blanket, suggesting he’ll jump when he’s ready, reassuring him that everything’s all right. But the kids tease him when they see him again, excluding him from their playful activities. Offering something of a diversion, Andrei races him home, each ready to tell on the other, but their mother quiets them, as their father (Konstantin Lavronenko), absent for 12 years, has inexplicably returned, sleeping in their mother’s bed in an identical position of Andrea Mantegna’s 15th century painting, The Lamentation of a Dead Christ, Lamentation by Andrea Mantegna. The boys are struck by his physical presence before running upstairs to confirm his identity, viewing a photograph kept in an illustrated family Bible, known by only a single photograph. This simple gesture has a way of aligning the two boys even closer, as they’ve been together through all the years the father was absent, both a bit stupefied by his presence. Their mother offers them no clues. Again, without any explanation, he takes the boys on a journey, presumably a fishing trip, where they slip further and further away from civilization, into the most remote wilderness, eventually landing on a desolate island where they pitch their tents. The older brother is glad his father has returned, while the younger brother isn’t even sure if this is his father or not, thinking he may be leading them astray to slit their throats, for all he knows, and sulks and disobeys his father every chance he gets. This father uses few words, but offers severe and sometimes brutal consequences for disobedient behavior, which includes smacking these kids around, bloodying their noses, leaving them out in the rain, which makes them wonder why he’s returned at all. But they’re so used to his absence that they continue to ignore him even when he’s present, seeing him as little more than a stranger. Their rebellion leads to a sort of LORD OF THE FLIES mentality, as if they don’t adhere to his rule, then they’re really turning their backs on all rules, which leaves them in a precarious position. It appears to be no accident that the younger child actor is named after the child hero in Tarkovsky’s Ivan's Childhood (1962), with both facing their own individual perils, where the innocence of youth is cut short, while the older child is named after Tarkovsky’s second film ANDREI RUBLEV (1966).
In the spirit of The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89), with echoes of Abraham and Isaac (Impossible Ethics: A Response to the Sacrifice of Isaac ...), the tension between father and sons builds continually throughout the journey, introducing Oedipal themes, exuding a heightened sense of reality, augmented by a dirgelike soundtrack that only accentuates the emotional and psychic distance between them, where Vanya is the moody core of the story, refusing to play along, angry and irritated at being ordered around by a total stranger, spending much of the picture sulking alone, silently. His father’s response is harsh and at times cruel, an enigmatic and tortuous Stalin figure, leaving Vanya on the side of the road and driving off for hours at a time, forcing him to endure endless hours of pelting rain in the cold. His absence is never discussed, no questions about his past are ever asked, and little, if any emotion is ever exhibited by the father. His behavior is bewildering, yet the children offer unbelievably authentic performances. While Russia historically is a patriarchal society, despite being called the Motherland, Russian films, including those of Tarkovsky, often reflect absent fathers and nurturing mothers, while also using recurring symbols of water and rain, natural forces of eternity that may also reflect a cleansing of one’s sins. There is a morality tale at play here, as the children are constantly questioning the authority of their father, which may as well be a question for the nation, having endured a long history of brutal dictators, a brief hint of democracy, but then a return back to the rule of despots with Putin. Using heavy force and humiliation, the father attempts to teach his sons hard corps discipline, military style, fueling speculation that he may have been in the military, but also survival techniques out in the woods, taking them on a long and arduous journey driving an 80’s GAZ Volga Stationwagon before traveling by boat, eventually reaching a remote, completely uninhabited island. While they have a burning curiosity about him, wondering where he has been, why he has come back, how he has been spending his time, viewing him as a terrifying figure that they have every intention to love, but there are continual interruptions en route, with their father making inexplicable phone calls, presumably to some mistress nearby, but we never really know. The boys grow tired of being ordered around, becoming more and more defiant over time, with Vanya eventually learning to despise him, extremely suspicious of his motives, having little use for him, feeling more liberated without him. The stunning cinematography is by Mikhail Krichman, who would go on to shoot all of the director’s films, whose slow panning offers a strong sense of foreboding, given extraordinary weight, meticulously establishing the mood, capturing the natural beauty in the landscape with long, unbroken silences, while often changing focus several times within the same shot, given the artistic complexity of a Tarkovsky film, where the final shot actually resembles the final shot of MIRROR (1975), as does an earlier shot of the mother smoking on the porch during the unexpected arrival of the absent father, with a strikingly original soundtrack adding considerable depth, setting an atmospheric tone. Resembling Bergman films shot on Fårö Island, offering a rugged and distinctive landscape in a remote location, this film was mostly shot at Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest freshwater lake, located in northwestern Russia between St. Petersburg and the Finnish border.
Winner of the Golden Lion award at the 2003 Venice Film Festival for both Best Film and Best First Film, exactly as Tarkovsky had won the Golden Lion for his own debut 41-years earlier, IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962), yet for Siberian-born Zvyagintsev, a former actor and TV director, this remains, arguably, the director’s most dramatically powerful and artistically accomplished film, and his most accessible, while also among his most exquisitely edited, though one ghastly tragedy happening shortly after the completion of the shooting resulted in the unfortunate death of Vladimir Garin who played the older brother Andrei, drowning in a lake not far from where the movie was shot. In his acceptance speech, a visibly moved Zvyagintsev dedicated the Golden Lion to Garin. The Cannes Film Festival of 2003 was similarly affected by the death of Emin Toprak, one of the lead actors in Ceylan’s DISTANT (Uzak) (2002), co-winner of the Best Actor Prize, who perished in a car accident shortly after that film was completed. Part of the film’s emotional center is the struggle the boys have in attempting to develop a new relationship with their father, which seems on again and off again several times before they actually reach their destination, as just when he is about to send his two sons back on the bus to their mother, he inexplicably changes his mind, with Andrei identifying with his father, while Ivan feels cut off and exiled, as if he never existed. While on the island the father goes off on individual hikes exploring the vicinity before asking his sons to join him, showing them an observational watchtower that overlooks the entire island (that Ivan refuses to climb), leaving the boys plenty of time on their own to squabble about his absence, wondering if he could have been in prison, or has a criminal background. The father is on a quest to retrieve something buried on the island, digging a fairly deep pit to find it, yet viewers remain clueless what it is, as it ends up having no bearing on the real story, which is the developing family dynamic with its shifting moods, with the father trying to turn them into men, which he actually succeeds in doing, much to the surprise of the boys themselves, but circumstances dictate a hastened maturity, particularly in Andrei, assuming his father’s role (seen wearing his father’s watch), developing skills and instincts well beyond their years. Most likely it’s the first time the boys have even been apart from their mother, leaving Ivan especially affected by her absence. Like the Stalin era, there are hidden secrets that we never learn, especially about the father. This absent father syndrome mirrors the loss of so many soldiers in World War II, with the Nazi Army coming within 20 miles of Moscow in what was a Red Army wipe out, a devastation of human losses, where throughout the war 22 to 26 million Russians died, or 15 – 20% of the entire population. Historically, this was a moment of great trauma and suffering, and a psychological shock to the nation. Perhaps this historical realism is at the root of the spiritual revelations of this film, recreating a similar shock, a deep psychological trauma, where perhaps the father’s absence is viewed as an act against nature, and it comes to represent a kind of allegorical elegy, and only through a spiritual transcendence or human epiphany can one appreciate and celebrate a renewed meaning of life. There’s a photographic aftermath that celebrates their lives together, captured in monochrome snapshots from Andrei’s camera, like diary entries, with the boys playing around, mostly smiling, revealing a spontaneity that never previously existed, leaving viewers with a stark, dreamlike idealization. For a film that offers few emotions throughout the journey, it certainly pays off with one of the more explosively emotional endings imaginable, as it is wordless, yet moves effortlessly and uncompromisingly to its natural conclusion, summing up the entire film in the last breathtakingly beautiful final twenty minutes. The original music by Andrey Dergachev (aka Dergatchev) is hauntingly eerie and atmospheric, and at the end, solemn to the core, Vozvrashcheniye (The Return) OST - YouTube (5:07).