'The Return' From Russia, With Love, Of a Sort
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2004; Page C05
Of the dark business that too often passes between fathers and sons, there is no end, no resolution, no solution, no recourse. There is only more evidence.
Such as the Russian film "The Return," directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, which strips from the relationship just about everything but pain and fear and resentment, relegating Mom, society, education, history and wider family context to insignificance. You feel the movie straining, even aching, for a mythic purity.
It begins with one of those childhood ordeals. Somewhere in the new Russia, a young boy fails the test his peers have designed for him; he cannot jump off a high tower, and his brother and the other kids decide he's a pig and a coward. So he beats one of them up; thus, we meet Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), who is young and vulnerable, but also tough.
When he and his brother Andrey -- bigger, stronger, faster, older, softer -- return home, they make a staggering discovery.
There, snoring in the bed, is the man of their dreams: their father. Where's he been for 12 years? Nobody knows. Why does he have so much money? No one's sure. What the hell is going on? Anybody's guess.
The father (Konstantin Lavronenko) is like a brute fact in the universe. He simply is, like the law of gravity, the persistence of the wind, the heat of the sun. And he expects certain levels of respect from his boys regardless of his absence.
The director clearly sees this figure as an abstraction given flesh. He is the Great Father, the Father of Us All, He Who Must Be Obeyed. I leave to the experts the possibility of an elaborate metaphorical reference to Russian history. I can only say, you really feel the steely force of Dad's will.
It transpires quickly that he will take his boys on a three-day fishing trip. Basically, that's the movie, shot against empty urban landscapes (teeming masses in Russia? Not in this picture) or desolate wilderness. Father and sons interact, and quickly patterns emerge. Ivan is openly rebellious; he resents this stranger who assumes control over him and demands respect without giving it. The older Andrey (Vladimir Garin) is the conciliator (a familiar figure in damaged families) who tries desperately to bring the two together and, naturally, only drives them further apart, while absorbing a special contempt from each.
The movie is structured to take them farther and farther out, until they're alone in the world, on the edge of a tranquil lake, and all their rage can have full, untrammeled play.
The film has an eerie sense of conviction in its simplicity, and the two primary antagonists -- Dad and Ivan -- are brilliantly acted. It's not the sort of film one can be said to enjoy, but it is the sort of film that has the clarity of a dream and lingers for hours.
The Return (105 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but has emotionally intense material on the theme of child abuse.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A boy (Vladimir Garin, right) mediates between his father (Konstantin Lavronenko) and brother (Ivan Dobronravov).