Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Russian film "The Return" -- a road movie, a morality play, a father-sons struggle, with an existential twist

Back in 2002, a passage in an online copy of my second book, where I was discussing the possibility of nuclear terrorism, was hacked.  Some of the jibberish that got overlaid onto a particularly sensitive passage appeared to point to some lakes around the border between Russia and Finland.  It never happened again. It was weird.

Well, Eastern European films can definitely have sharp edges to them on deep moral problems. So I was curious when I saw “The Return” (“Vozvrashchenie” or "Возвращение"), a 2003 film in Russian by Andrei Zvyagintsev, and noted in the Netflix summary that it’s about a father’s forcing a “rite of passage” on his sons, I was curious.

The film opens with two brothers, Andrey, about 16 (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan, about 12 (Ivan Dobronrarov) “playing” with other kids on a jump tower near a cold seacoast.  Ivan is afraid to jump and dive, and his “single” mother (Natalya Vodvina) rescues him and protects him from the bullies, but the boy will be called a “coward” and “pig” by his playmates anyway. They go back to their Spartan home, and suddenly the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) has returned after twelve years of mysterious absence.

The father takes the boys on a road trip, past the cafes and into the wilderness.  (At one point, the father  dispatches a thief who tries to steal from Ivan, as if the world were one with no real morality or sense of law and order.) The boys  fish in canals, tar the bottom of a boat and then make a trip with father to a “mysterious island” where they will be challenged and initiated.  The film develops the complex relationship between the boys and with their father and plays on the idea that in their culture, boys must prove their competitiveness and “machismo” (ability to protect women and children) before they can go anywhere else in life.

Toward the end, the father digs up a chest in a remote shed, and a heavy tin box inside it. We’re never shown what’s in the box (you think of [“The Box” and “Darko”] Virginia-rasied director Richard Kelly), but imagination is a good thing here.  One could presume that he will leave his sons an “inheritance” if they pass their tests.  All you get to see is a watch.

A little test does happen, and then there is tragedy, which is enigmatic.  Before the closing credits, the boys review some pictures (maybe from the box) that give some clues as to what may have happened to their father.  One can imagine that the box could contain gold – but not that much, really – or something very heavy and very dangerous.  The father was obviously “on the lam” and had hidden something away, perhaps with shady business dealings in post-Communist Russia, or maybe even with booty from the Cold War.

The film was shot around the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, more or less near areas in the hack, and the film was made about the same time as the hack.  For me, it’s all rather curious. Early in my novel manuscript, “Brothers”, the protagonist (a part-time CIA agent who publicly is just a history teacher) journeys to the Gulf of Finland area to pick up a mysterious “heavy” object disguised in an old Radio Shack computer, with clues toward a turning of our whole civilization.  The scenery is pretty much as I had imagined -- very flat, with lots of waterways and bridges.  It reminds me a bit of northern Minnesota (like around the Burnside Lodge, near Ely, where I stayed one weekend in 1999). 

The English translation of the title matches the name Beethoven gave to the last movement of his "Les Adieux" Piano Sonata. That's curious.  A little music from Mozart's Requiem appears in this movie. 

Kino’s official site is here

There is a “feature length” documentary about the making of this film from RenFilm on YouTube, the first part here:


Wikipedia attribution link for map of Ladoga area.




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