Ivan Solovov: Father (Otets, 2007)

reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2008

Ivan Solovov's masterful adaptation of Andrei Platonov's short story “Homecoming” (1946) explores both the particularities of the Russian postwar experience and the more general landscape of the human condition. Like Platonov's censored story, the film successfully redefines the meaning of victory, complicates the definition of peacetime, and diversifies the memory of postwar Soviet realities. At the same time, the director engagingly addresses the universal themes of fidelity, familial relations, and paternal responsibility.

Father traces the return of a captain, Aleksei Ivanov, to his home and family after serving in the army for four years during World War II. From the opening scenes, Ivanov, who represents the Soviet everyman's return to the normalcy of peacetime, is portrayed sympathetically. A man in his late thirties, he is a decorated soldier, a caring family man, and a selfless individual. While waiting for the delayed train that will take him to his wife Liuba and his two children, he strikes up a conversation with the young and beautiful Masha who has been demobilized and is also homeward bound. The two strangers grow close on the isolated, makeshift platform as they share their anxieties about returning to civilian life. Masha, whose parents had been killed by the Germans, fears how her aunts and other residents of her small town will react to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. For his part, Ivanov expresses a preference for the certainties of the military existence he is leaving behind to the uncertainties of the domestic responsibilities awaiting him. The pair takes advantage of their serendipitous encounter to relieve, albeit momentarily, each other's anxieties.

Instead of continuing on his journey, Ivanov decides to escort Masha to her new guardians, posing as her husband and the father of her child. His attraction to the fair-skinned, youthful Masha and his noble impulse distract him from worrying about his own homecoming. After two days, however, Ivanov must return to his family. As he leaves Masha behind, vowing he will never forget her, Ivanov asks her with anguish in his voice: “Why couldn't I have met you before?” Although a sense of duty compels him to return to the hearth he is already bound to, he sees Masha's youth and the new life she is expecting as a possibility of truly starting afresh in an unfamiliar and intimidating postwar world.

When Ivanov arrives at his final destination, he is greeted by his somber son Pet'ka, who has, in his father's absence, become an adult trapped in a child's body. The twelve year-old is devoid of the spontaneity characteristic of boys his age. His actions are planned, his thinking calculated, his words measured. During the war Pet'ka inherited the duties and responsibilities of a grown-up—taking care of his younger sister and household affairs while his mother worked double shifts at the brick factory. There is a distinct feeling in their conversations that the son resents his father's sudden absence and is equally as uncomfortable about his abrupt return.

Ivanov's wife, Liuba, is thrilled to see her husband after four years. Although it is evident that the family survived the worst of wartime by relying on each other, Liuba tries to convince her husband that his presence will improve their lives. Despite her reassurances, it is clear by Ivanov's hesitant movements and his polite questions that he feels a stranger in his own home, among people who are supposed to be closest to him. Ivanov's daughter, Nastia, does not recognize him, continually evading his affection. The hero's own distance is evident in a dream sequence (absent in Platonov's short story) during which he imagines Masha to be his new wife and the mother of his children.

Matters are made worse when Ivanov's daughter naively mentions a man she refers to as “uncle.” When asked who this man is, Nastia explains that this individual had been visiting for some time, bringing gifts and household necessities, showering the children with attention and providing Liuba with much-needed companionship. The notion that his wife could have invited a man into his home makes Ivanov even more insecure. Liuba attempts to assure her husband that the visits were entirely innocent, providing solace to a man who had lost his entire family during the war. Ivanov's sense that he is an outsider and an intruder, however, only increases. He begins to see himself as a man who had been replaced all too easily by the affections of a stranger.

The tension climaxes in a scene in which Ivanov confronts Liuba and his worst fears head on. By insistently accusing and questioning his wife's fidelity, the scorned husband manages to extract a confession of Liuba's single transgression. During an impassioned dialogue Liuba defends herself, imploring for understanding of all the struggles she underwent during wartime. In the throes of agonizing anticipation, she had begun to die inside, slowly forgetting to experience anything but a sense of emotional void. She had lost the desire to get up in the morning, slowly being swallowed up by grief, despair, and loneliness. Afraid of losing herself completely to the sense of desolation, she had attempted to simulate emotional intimacy with another man. In the bleak wartime landscape, this was her only cure. Entirely unmoved by Liuba's explanations and entreaties for forgiveness, Ivanov dismisses his wife's wartime experiences. He does not legitimize her struggle as real, characterizing only his own wartime suffering as genuine.

The next morning Ivanov leaves his home unnoticed, determined to leave the wife he feels is no longer his and the children that do not seem to recognize him as the household father-figure. He boards the train he descended not even twenty-four hours ago, determined to return to Masha and begin a life he can call his own. But as the train is leaving the station, the man in search for a homecoming more fit for a war hero notices two small figures trying to reach the moving train. Eventually he recognizes the exhausted, stumbling, desperate runners as his son and daughter. Visibly overcome by emotion, he jumps off the train into the embrace of his offspring.

The way in which Father tackles the issue of war, focusing on the everyday lives of “ordinary” people, is reminiscent of the Thaw period. Instead of concentrating on the grand parades and heroic battles characteristic of the Stalin and Brezhnev-era films, directors of the Thaw period examined seemingly mundane experiences not only to uncover the substance of (post)war reality, but also to examine universal issues. Solovov's film also reconsiders the official memory of the end of the war and the supposed glorious return of victors to their homes. Ivanov, who has clearly internalized the official notion of what victory would look like, is greatly disappointed with the realities of peacetime. In fact, the transition into the monotony of everyday life is so abrupt and yet seamless that it is as if the war had never occurred. Like the Thaw-era films, Father successfully demonstrates that the trauma of postwar life can be as treacherous and as damaging as the traumas associated with military combat.

The film also returns us to the Thaw era by portraying female characters in a sympathetic and complex manner. Like Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957), Father movingly and persuasively examines the circumstances surrounding Liuba's infidelity. Rather than passing judgment, Solovov depicts Liuba as not only a wife and mother, but as an individual whose psychological makeup is not determined solely by her social and familial roles. Her infidelity, in other words, is not a transgression of her spousal duties (even though she is aware of the offense), but a reflection of her attempt to survive the poverty, exhaustion, and uncertainties of wartime. This kind of perspective allows a more inclusive definition of what it means to be a war hero. Though historians often concentrate on women who participated in combat as proof of women's dedication to the patriotic cause, this film effectively acknowledges and legitimizes the sacrifices of those women who labored far from enemy lines, working double shifts in grievous conditions while simultaneously ensuring the welfare of their children and extended families.

Father also thoughtfully examines the idea of generational relations—that is, the idea of fathers and sons. In this sense, Solovov's film follows the tradition underscored in such celebrated Thaw-era films as Marlen Khutsiev's Two Fedors (Dva Fedora, 1958), Sergei Bondarchuk's Destiny of a Man (Sud'ba cheloveka, 1959), and Georgii Daneliia and Igor' Talankin's A Summer to Remember (Serezha, 1960). Children, as powerful symbols of the Communist system's regeneration following Stalin's tyrannical rule, figured prominently in Soviet cinema during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. The symbolic sons in these films are often wiser than their fathers, serving as a corrective to their lost ways. In Solovov's narrative, children also serve as a redemptive force for both parents, reminding them of the sanctity of their marital and parental duties.

In the end, Solovov's film is successful in three regards. First, Father represents a masterful adaptation of Andrei Platonov's captivating tale. The scriptwriters and director succeeded in transferring Platonov's emotionally rich and nuanced narrative onto the screen without sacrificing the idiosyncrasies of the cinematic form. Second, the film adeptly problematizes and expands the understanding of postwar reality, as well as people's behavior during wartime. In this way, Solovov accomplishes the most difficult feat: to reconsider national memory in a distinctly discreet and yet profound manner. Lastly, the themes of the film bring to the foreground the most enduring traditions of Thaw-era filmmaking. For all its varied accomplishments, Father deserves to be included in the cannon of post-Soviet Russian cinema.

Marko Dumančić
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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Father, Russia, 2007
Color, 82 minutes
Director: Ivan Solovov
Scriptwriters: Natal'ia Chepik, Iraklii Kvirikadze
Cinematography: Vladimir Klimov
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko
Music: Aleksei Rybnikov
Cast: Aleksei Gus'kov, Polina Kutepova, Vasilii Prokop'ev, Svetlana Ivanova, Roman Madianov, Ekaterina Vasil'eva, Liudmila Arinina, Nina Ruslanova
Producer: Ivan Solovov, Aleksei Gus'kov,
Production: Mentor Cinema Film Company, Studio “F.A.F.,” Karo Prokat

Ivan Solovov: Father (Otets, 2007)

reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2008

Updated: 20 Mar 08