From Russia, an Art Film for the Guys
Friday, August 13, 2004
The Russian director Alexander Sokurov doesn't make conventional narrative films as much as cinematic tone poems. His best-known movie, 2002's "Russian Ark," was an exercise in bravura filmmaking, taking viewers through St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum in one single tracking shot. In "Mother and Son," a grown man carried his ailing mother through a dreamlike landscape in a nearly wordless exploration of the burdens of filial devotion. "Father and Son," Sokurov's new follow-up to that 1997 movie, finds the filmmaker meditating once again on the intense bonds between parent and child. And once again, his reflections take the form of an elliptical, often confounding series of symbolically freighted tableaux.
"Father and Son" opens with the image of two male figures wrestling in shadowy light. They could be lovers or rivals or brothers, but they are indeed a father (Andrey Shchetinin) and a son (Aleksey Neymyshev), the latter of whom has just awakened from a nightmare. The scenes that follow -- the father visiting his son at military school, a tortured confrontation between the younger man and his girlfriend, the arrival of a mysterious visitor, a streetcar journey through a beautiful, unnamed city -- have the ethereal, abstracted air of a protracted dream sequence, as the title characters fight, embrace, separate and come together again, often uttering gnomic pronouncements like "A father's love crucifies. A loving son lets himself be crucified."
It's all very heavy, and not to everyone's taste. But for fans of Sokurov's brand of intensely visual filmmaking, "Father and Son" has its rewards. Suffused with jarring homoerotic images of male beauty and desire (Shchetinin and Neymyshev are both gorgeous physical specimens and look more like siblings than father and son), the film may be maddeningly obtuse, but its images are dazzling. As he did in "Mother and Son," Sokurov used an anamorphic lens to film "Father and Son," lending a burnished, fuzzy-edged look to the dreamy mood.
Unlike the earlier film, which was set in rural Russia, this one is set in a dense, often cramped city on the edge of the sea ("Father and Son" was filmed in Lisbon). If the setting is claustrophobic, it's also bracingly beautiful, a contradiction that is every bit in keeping with Sokurov's preference for ambiguity over clarity. As the two men struggle with their mutual feelings of loyalty, dependence and resentment, it's not always clear whether this is love or something more deeply pathological. Seen through Sokurov's distinctive eye, the two often seem inextricably intertwined.