Andrei Zviagintsev: The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2007

The Banishment , Andrei Zviagintsev's second film after the sensational success at Venice of his debut The Return (Vozvrashchenie) in 2003, premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in May 2007, where it won the actor Konstantin Lavronenko (who had also starred in The Return) the prize for “Best Actor.”

The film is loosely based on William Saroyan's novel The Laughing Matter, published in 1954. The novel is not part of standard Saroyan editions and was never republished. It tells the story of Evan Nazarenus, a university professor of English, who goes with his wife Swan and his children, Red and Eva, to a country estate that his brother Dade had built for his family. Dade is a gambler and his family has left him. Evan's family explores the surrounding locations—the vineyards, the river, the train station, and the nearby town of Clovis, and make the acquaintance of the Walz family with their three daughters. The crisis of the Nazarenus family is brought about when Swan tells Evan that she is with child, but “not ours.” Swan and Evan both want to keep the family together and Evan decides she should have an abortion, which is carried out by a doctor Dade finds in Fresno. When Swan dies after the abortion, Evan shoots Dade in a rage, injuring him seriously. Dade makes the funeral arrangements and dies on the way back from the cemetery, taking with him the secret of the note that had Swan left, which explains that she committed suicide with the painkillers the doctor had left for her; Dade had also hidden from Evan the doctor's testimony that Swan had a psychologically unstable character and was predisposed to suicide. Evan returns to his home, where he discovers that the colleague he had suspected of having an affair with Swan had in fact been pursued for attention by his wife. Evan dies in a car accident on the way back to the children. Saroyan's narrative is subtly constructed as the narrator adopts the perspective of the child, Red, to view the countryside with naivety, curiosity, and inquisitiveness. And it is the children, as opposed to the adults, who know precisely what they want.

The film preserves the basic plot-line of the novel, as well as numerous episodes (such as the headstand of one of the girls or Red's fine sense of smell), but there are also several departures: thus, for example, the fig tree becomes a solitary walnut tree; or the drive on the locomotive is replaced by a visit to a factory. The film also relinquishes the child-like openness of the narrator to the world he encounters and all references to the fascination with Armenian, which Dade and Evan speak and which Evan starts to teach his children. In the novel, Evan is a caring father, but he is a brutish character in the film, much in the style of the word-less, emotionally cold, and seemingly uncaring father of The Return, who is capable only of ordering the children around without much potential for understanding their world: his words are limited to short and snappy orders—“be quiet” (molchi), “it's got to be done” (tak nado), and “let's go” (poidem). He has no kind words for the children, unlike Evan in the novel who persistently asks the children what they want to do rather than imposing his own will; neither does the film's character help the neighbor's son find a job on a ship. Moreover, the mother figure in the film is presented as a saint, whereas Swan is a psychologically unbalanced and indecisive character, with an inherent flaw in her personality that may be the result of her growing up without parents—especially important considering that the concept of the family is at the heart of Saroyan's novel. Indeed, this change of the character of Swan is particularly interesting in light of The Return, where the two women (mother and grandmother of the children) are portrayed like Mary and Mary Magdalene, without psychological depth but as objects for contemplation and devotion (as the Madonna) and quiet servants to the Father. Finally, there are changes in detail: in the novel Evan shoots Dade in anger, whereas in the film the brother suffers from a heart attack. Evan's temper and his inherent violence are shown in the film in different ways—in his beating of his wife, in his obstinate and uncaring behavior towards the children, in his general lack of emotion (he smiles or laughs only once). While the film makes out the woman as a saint and the husband as a brute, the novel does not dwell on Evan's violence: he is a caring and benevolent man, ready to help others and able to listen to his children, but he is also angry. Swan's suicide is a result of her fragile mental state rather than of her husband's inability to listen.

Set in a remote location in the hills, with a mediaeval church and a simple white country house on the top of a hill by an abyss, The Banishment dislocates the family from its home in the industrial city: the urban scenes were shot in the Belgian mining town of Charleroi, with its typically dark brick buildings and concrete walls painted with placard-style workers. The house in the countryside, the small church on the hillside with a cemetery at the hilltop, as well as the wooden bridge across the abyss were specially built on location in Moldova, near Cahol.

The Banishment seems to follow on from The Return, not only in terms of style and casting, but also in terms of its thematic development, which suggests that Zviagintsev relied on already tested devices rather than develop further his own film language. The déjà-vu is aided by casting Konstantin Lavronenko once again in the part of the father, Alex, who is now the father to a boy, Kir(ill), and a girl, Eva. Once again the story is focused on the theme of fatherhood and parental love, although it is also about the relationship of Alex with his wife Vera, played by the Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie—with much colder eyes than her filmic predecessor, Natal'ia Vdovina, the benevolent mother and wife from The Return. Vera is an enigmatic figure who seems to be at once a saint and a sufferer, displaying both openness and withdrawal, features that are explained only in the final flashback of the film, leaving the viewer in some ambiguity as to her character—unless, that is, we follow Zviagintsev's carefully constructed maze of cues and clues to solve the “enigma” hidden in his film (just as the ominous content of the coffer in The Return had misled viewers).

Visually, we follow once again the footsteps of The Return, as Zviagintsev uses verified devices such as photographs and references to cinematic masters of the past and to renaissance paintings. Family photographs decorate the house and Vera shows some family pictures to Alex's colleague Robert. These photographs hint at the past both of Alex's father and of his possibly criminal, in any case gloomy brother Mark, enigmatically portrayed by Aleksandr Baluev. The photos show Mark's happy family before his wife and children left him; Mark and Alex with their father; and Alex as father with the newborn Kir and his wife. The photos thus show past happiness: families with fathers. However, in the present all these families are broken: the father is dead and Mark is separated. In The Return, the image of the father is only preserved on photographs; here, too, the memory of the father is captured in pictures. Only Vera has an image of her mother—not her father,—making fatherhood the theme, or obsession, of the film and Alex its main character.

The imagery of the film relies heavily on painting—Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation (1472-75) features as a jigsaw puzzle that is being completed by the playing children, while the final scene is modeled on Pieter Brueghel's Harvesters (1565). Curiously, the latter also served as a model for the set design and choreography of a production of the theater director Jacques (Zhak) with his “RussianImpostureMasterclass” (ShkolaRusskogoSamozvanstva) in 1998, based on Gogol''s “The Overcoat” and entitled Overcoat #2737,5 in which Lavronenko played the main part. Coincidence?

Zviagintsev quotes Andrei Tarkovskii's films, as well as scenes from Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Michelangelo Antonioni—only these quotations are obtrusive and too obvious. The frequent shots of the wind ruffling the fields and the swaying rye are overused. The landscape with dead trees in the swamp of Tarkovskii's Ivan's Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962) is here transposed into a summer landscape, where the children play and adults walk among those trees and stumps. The use of mirrors for characters to explore themselves or refrain from looking at each other directly also echoes Tarkovskii's use of mirrors in his films, especially Nostalghia (1983) and The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975). The reference to water, both as a purifying source and as a surface for reflection, also stems from Tarkovskii, although the dried-up creek that suddenly turns into a swelling river that flows into a pond protrudes as artificial. These symbolic images are not fully integrated into the narrative, and they are less subtle and more blunt than in The Return. Because of the non-integration of such references, The Banishment is at best a weak remake of The Return, continuing the theme of the significance of religion for everyday life, preached through an array of visual citations.

I have never understood, for instance, attempts to construct mise-en-scène from a painting. All you will be doing is bringing that painting back to life […] But you will also be killing cinema. (Tarkovsky 78)

Zviagintsev's skill at visual quotation of renaissance art and masters of cinema leads nowhere. From a director with Zviagintsev's talent—which was praised in reviews and acknowledged in numerous international awards—the reliance on citation disappoints; it betrays not so much his ability as a director, but his contribution to the development of cinematic language, which cannot lie in a reconstruction of past masters, as Tarkovskii—whom Zviagintsev likes to refer to as his ideal—has also noted. Admittedly, after The Return, audience expectations were high, and achieving the complex web of visual and philosophical, religious, and narrative references used in the debut film was a difficult and challenging task—one the director did not master.

The interpretative layers of The Banishment are almost banal. As in The Return, Zviagintsev insists on the significance of names: Ivan and Andrei were references to the disciples, while for The Banishment he juxtaposes Slavic and Christian names in the choice of Vera (Faith) and Alex(ander), the Slavic saint Cyril for the boy and Eva of Genesis for the girl. The religious theme is further underlined by the neighbor's girls' reading of a passage from the Bible, from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which states that “love never fails”:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. (13:4-10)

While the mother loves everybody—hugging her daughter after Eva upsets her, crying when Kir shouts at Robert, and caressing her sleeping husband who has beaten her and fails to listen—Alex loves only his own image: his love is vain. Vera has understood this. Zviagintsev turns her into a Madonna figure, capable of a love that is not wanted in the world. The children's jigsaw puzzle of da Vinci's Annunciation, showing the scene where Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear God's child, is incomplete: the middle part—the link between the angel and Mary—is void, symbolically illustrating the lack of communication between husband and wife, between God and man, and generally referring to the lack of trust. The neighbors' visit with their three children, when Liza (a reference in name to Mary's cousin Elizabeth whom she visited after the annunciation) mentions to Vera that “God loves trinity,” is also highly symbolic.

The jigsaw scene of the annunciation implies that Vera (Faith) is carrying God's child: she is a woman who, like Mary, sacrifices her life for the love of her family, in a similar way in which the Father sacrifices himself for his son to recognize Him—if we go along with the reading of the father as the return of Christ as represented through the Mantegna scene (see Beumers). If the country house represents paradise—complete with the orchard and the creek, the wind and the clouds—then it is man who expels himself from paradise by trying, ambitiously, to hold together a family without real love.

This interpretation is underscored further by the use of Bach's Magnificat (“The Song of Mary”), as well as the flashback that follows Alex's visit to Robert after Vera's death. Once Alex has found and read Vera's farewell note, Robert recalls Vera's suicide attempt, the news of her pregnancy, and her despair that she would be giving birth to a child born from a man who no longer understands her; their relationship is dead, void of understanding and words. She refuses to “give birth to something dying.” It is purposeful when Vera says to Alex that she knows who he and his brother are, that she knows who his father was, and that she can see what Kir is turning into—the boy barges into the room where Vera is crying as Robert is sitting next to her and snaps “What is he doing here? Why is he not at home?”—echoing the conduct of his father who does not ask, does not listen, and does not try to understand. Only Eva shows compassion: when she realizes that she has driven her mother to tears, she apologizes and puts her arms around her. Vera is estranged from her husband to such an extent that she feels the child she is carrying is not his: she argues that “our children are not our children. Or rather they are not only ours.” She accuses Alex of selfishness: “he loves us only for himself, like things.” Vera's estrangement is emphasized through shots showing her and Alex lying with their backs to each other in bed; sitting opposite each other in the train compartment; or standing behind each other, facing the same direction, without looking at each other. Only Vera looks at Alex, often when he has turned away or is asleep.

The long takes and lingering shots of the landscape (as if it could tell us something) or on the characters' faces as they fail to communicate through words turn this 150-minute-long film into an overburdened parable. Loud noises (cars, engines, telephones) fill the silences, dialogue is almost absent, and the choral music of Arvo Pärt (“Kanon Pokojanen,” 1997; “Alina,” 1976) as well as compositions by Andrei Dergachev (“Kyrie”) performed by the Sirin Ensemble forebode the imminent destruction of family, nature, and life: Mark's arrival at Alex's town house with a bullet wound; the visit to the church and the cemetery (anticipating Vera's resting place); the silence that follows the scene when Vera tells Alex of her pregnancy.

The film keeps the viewer in constant tension between a desire to see Zviagintsev move on from The Return—and him failing to do so. References to the New Testament may be aimed at heightening the moral intensity of the film, but unfortunately they remain on the level of a garbled and confused reading of passages from the Bible that appears polished only thanks to the visually beautiful surface of this film.

The story is different than The Return: if the father's love was not recognized by Ivan and Andrei until after the father's death, here it is the father's love that fails: he cannot trust his wife and does not recognize in her the saintly figure of Mary the Virgin, about to bear him another child. Where The Return tells the story of Christ's return as He remains unrecognized, The Banishment denies Christ the possibility of a second coming in the first place. In this sense, the film offers only hopelessness and destruction beneath a powerful nature imagery, undisturbed and untouched by civilization.

As a film-enigma, The Banishment will no doubt attract the attention of critics and scholars, as was the case for The Return. For the development of the filmmaker Zviagintsev, this film does not suggest a move to a new direction or to any direction at all. It is at most a darker, gloomier version of the first film. Maybe with his third film Zviaginstev will be able to cut himself loose from the assimilated cinematic history and from defining his role as a missionary, and offer instead his own story—both in narrative and visual terms.

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

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Images courtesy Intercinema XXI.

Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit. Review of Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return. KinoKultura 14 (October 2006).

Saroyan, William. The Laughing Matter. London: Faber, 1954.

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair. Austin: U of Texas P, 2000.

The Banishment, Russia 2007
Color, 150 minutes
Director Andrei Zviagintsev
Scriptwriters: Oleg Negin, Andrei Zviagintsev, Artem Melkumian
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman
Costumes: Anna Bartuan
Editing: Anna Mass
Sound: Andrei Dergachev
Music: Andrei Dergachev, Arvo Pärt
Cast: Konstantin Lavronenko, Aleksandr Baluev, Marie Bonnevie, Dmitrii Ulianov, Valerii Kishchenko
Producer: Dmitrii Lesnevskii
Production Company: REN Film

Andrei Zviagintsev: The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07