A HAUNTING Russian art film with the economy of a thriller, "The Return" quickly establishes a few key relationships. Willful but sometimes wimpy Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) is close to his older brother (Vladimir Garin), even if Andrey sometimes abandons him -- as he does in the opening scene, in which Ivan is too scared to join Andrey and other boys in jumping off a high tower into a body of water. Left alone atop the tower, Ivan is rescued by his never-named mother (Natalia Vdovina), on whom he is obviously very dependent.
And what about Dad? The boys haven't seen him for 12 years, since Ivan was a toddler, and don't remember him. Yet that relationship is also about to be defined. When Andrey and Ivan (who looks like a Slavic Haley Joel Osment) arrive home the next day, they're told to be quiet. Their father is asleep.
There are many mysteries in "The Return," which won the grand prize award at the Venice Film Festival, but director Andrey Zvyagintsev has no intention of unraveling most of them. An actor and TV director making his feature debut, Zvyagintsev keeps explanations to a minimum. The events about to transpire are primal, even archetypal, so they don't require an elaborate context.
At dinner that night, the boys' never-named father (Konstantin Lavronenko) proves stern and uncommunicative, if anxious to turn his boys into men. (He gives them what seem to be their first glasses of wine.) The next day, the three set out in Dad's ramshackle car for a two-day fishing trip. If the intention is to become acquainted, Dad's reticence and Ivan's petulance make bonding unlikely.
During a series of incidents, most of them involving conflict between Dad and Ivan, the boys prove insufficiently virile for their old man. After he makes a phone call and learns that he must mysteriously alter his itinerary, Dad decides to send the boys home by bus. But he abruptly changes his mind, and instead takes them along on his urgent errand, extending the trip by several days without a thought of informing the boys' mother. The threesome tar a small boat and make their way to an uninhabited island, where Dad digs up a box. (What's in it? Don't ask, because Zvyagintsev won't tell.) On the island, the relationship between the boys and their father does not improve. Ivan steals his father's knife in preparation for a possible confrontation. When the showdown arrives, it brings the film full circle -- to a rudimentary lighthouse that looks much like the diving platform that nearly undid Ivan in the opening scene.
"The Return" has been widely compared to the work of Russian cinematic mystic Andrei Tarkovsky, and Zvyagintsev does pay an explicit homage to that director. In adapting the original version of Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky's script, he changed the names of the boys to echo the given names of Tarkovsky and the protagonist of his debut feature, "Ivan's Childhood." Zvyagintsev's film shares much with Tarkovsky's work, notably an otherworldly conception of the Russian landscape -- beautifully rendered by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman -- and a near-ritualistic emphasis on the transfigurative power of water and rain.
Yet the film seems more modern than anything by Tarkovsky (who died in 1986), and not just because of its occasional use of glancing, jumpy hand-held camera. It's tighter, leaner, faster -- Russian lyricism imbued with the impatience of the video-game age. Poetic yet efficient, "The Return" constructs a powerful mood without indulging in brooding, overlong scenes.
Zvyagintsev makes explicit reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which a father prepares to sacrifice his son, and begs comparison to Freud's notion of the Oedipus complex, in which the son must kill the father. And this is Russia, after all, so the despotic father can be seen as one of country's many former rulers -- or its current one. The film, however, is primarily about Ivan, who smolders with resentment and the first glimmers of adolescent bewilderment. Whatever interpretation is given to the ambiguous events that follow the return of the boy's father, one thing is certain:
Ivan's childhood is over.
THE RETURN (Unrated, 106 minutes) -- Includes violence, death and an ominous father-son relationship. In Russian with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.