Issue 32 (2011)
Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003)
revisited by Meghan Vicks © 2011
Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return examines the arrested transition from Soviet to post-Soviet Russia by deconstructing a number of mythologies that have traditionally been part and parcel of Russian culture. Zviagintsev himself has stated that “the film is a mythological look at human life,” and that “if you watch this movie from the standpoint of everyday life, it’s a mistake, because it’s much broader, and the mystery of the film won’t reveal itself to you” (Abeel 2004). As such, The Return presents these mythologies via “filmic hieroglyphics,” which are described by Nancy Condee as “sacred writings in picture form, a fusion of verbal and visual texts” (Condee 1995: xii). In another interview, Zviagintsev discussed his desire to turn text into images in The Return, and the importance of the visual over the written medium: “We were originally going to show a lot of text from the diary on-screen, but I think that can be a sign of a lack of imagination. Sometimes it works […], but generally, if you can think of a way to turn text into visuals, you should do it. That’s how we came up with the idea of the children taking black-and-white photos.”
These filmic hieroglyphics inform both the form and content of The Return: formally, because the film is the visual representation of journal entries; and content-wise, because discourses from various cultural traditions—including folkloric and Christian—are presented as images. In effect, the film “returns” to and even resurrects these mythologies, as it also features a number of additional “returns,” including the return of the absent father, the return to the cinematic traditions of Tarkovsky, and the return of a Christ-like figure, all of which Birgit Beumers has earlier pointed out and discussed in her excellent 2004 KinoKultura review. However, in returning to these various mythologies, the film reveals how they are no longer capable of functioning in post-Soviet Russia. Here, I analyze The Return’s use of folkloric, Christian, and journal hieroglyphics, and reveal how they are deconstructed by the film’s end. The Return, then, while it is about the varying mythologies that have shaped Russia from pagan through Soviet times, is ultimately a film about contemporary post-Soviet Russia, and about how the dying or dead past still informs, affects, and even dominates the present.
It has been said by scholars and layman alike that the Russian people overly identify with their traditional folkloric hero, Ivan the Fool, who perpetually must tackle the same enigmatic quest: “to go nobody knows where to find nobody knows what” (Boym 1995). Partly because of this, folkloric narratives and archetypes were undeniable utilized by Soviet culture as vessels in which disseminate and integrate party ideology. In a similar vein, The Return utilizes folkloric rituals to create a narrative which not only restores the rites of initiation that form the mythological basis of the Russian fairytale plot, but which also deconstructs Soviet culture’s use of folklore as a tool of social integration.
We find elements of the folkloric tradition in the film’s characterization of the younger brother Ivan, in the trials and tests that the two brothers must face, and in the journey to a shadowy island to get a mysterious box (which is perhaps a visual quotation from Tarkovsky’s Stalker). Ivan parallels Ivan the Fool (Ivan durachok) not only because they share the same given name, but also because they are figures that have the most to learn. At the beginning of Russian fairytales, we often find an immature hero who either spends his days lounging around on the stove, being teased and ridiculed, or failing to do things that his older brothers can; similarly, at the start of The Return we meet Ivan, an adolescent boy who cries and is teased by others, and despite his strong resolve to imitate his older brother and jump off of the tower, cannot muster the courage to do so.
Like his folkloric predecessor, Ivan is sent off on an enigmatic journey that, among other things, is a drawn-out initiation ritual, an expedition required to make the transition from boyhood to manhood. As this mythological journey requires the relinquishing of the old self to make room for the new self, it often includes various battles, a symbolic death and rebirth, and tests of wit, endurance, and strength. In The Return, the journey that Ivan and Andrei undertake is similar to the fairytale quest in many ways: it marks a new phase in their lives, the beginning of a transition; it takes place far away from home, in an unknown area; it includes battles (with the other boys who steal the father’s wallet); it involves tests of endurance (Ivan must wait in the rain when his father leaves him on the bridge to fish); and it entails tests of strength (the boys must help push the car out of the mud; they must also row the boat to the island). However, the boys ultimately fail a number of these tests (they refuse to fight the other boys; it is the father who gets the branches under the tire and pushes the car out of the mud), and moreover, if there is a transition in the film from boyhood to adulthood, it only takes place in Andrei and not in Ivan; if anything, Ivan is recreated into an obedient child by the end of the film.
The island, too, is reminiscent of the unnamed destination of the quest in Russian folklore. In The Return,when the boys and their father cross the channel and step onto the island, they enter an enchanted and haunting realm in which magic can happen. Whereas on the mainland the father’s word is largely impotent, on the island his words are spoken and become reality: that is, the signified is matched up with the signifier. For instance, on the mainland when the father instructs his sons to use their “little hands” to put sticks under the tires, the boys fail; however, on the island, when Andrei echoes the father’s “little hands,” the boys are able to put sticks underneath their father’s corpse. Also, Ivan’s declaration to kill his father becomes all-too real on the island: his words become the world. Most importantly, the island represents a magical space because it contains the mysterious object of the quest, an object that, according to the fairytale tradition, promises to perfect and transform the hero into a man, give him the means to marry, or grant his home everlasting and abundant good fortune.
The magical object, however, instead of bringing fortune of any kind to the boys, is lost forever. It is in this way that the folkloric hieroglyphics of the film are deconstructed: yes, the magical object is present, but it is lost, and thus rendered ineffective; yes, the boys endure a long and trying quest, but their transition from boyhood to manhood is stunted, especially in the supposed hero Ivan.
To analyze the film through its Christian hieroglyphics, the father signifies as a Christ-like figure who is sent to save his children through his death. This reading is supported by a number of visuals that evoke Christian imagery: the boys’ photo of the father is kept in the family bible, specifically on a page that depicts God’s intervention of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son; there are repeated references to fish and fishing in the film; as Beumers points out, Jesus’ last supper is reenacted in the family dinner, during which the father shares wine and chicken (instead of bread) with his “disciples”; when the father falls to his death, his arms are outstretched in a gesture that mimics a cross, and therefore evokes the crucifixion; and the seven-day organization of the film mirrors the structural arrangement of the creation story. These Christian hieroglyphics suggest that the film may be read as a religious allegory; however, such a reading is problematized by the film’s end.
Among these Christian hieroglyphics that undergo a sort of Derridian différance, and thereby complicate the pure reading of the film as a parable of Christ’s resurrection, are the shots in which the father’s posturing is purposely positioned to imitate the dead Christ that is depicted in Andrea Mantegna’s painting, The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (c. 1480). These shots include the first and last shots in which the father is depicted: the shot of the father sleeping on the bed, which is the first time that the boys see him; and the shot of the father dead in the boat, which, conversely, is the last time he is seen. Both of these shots are composed according to Mantegna’s painting: the father lies supine, his head slouching over toward his left shoulder; the viewer perceives the figure from the position of his feet, which produces the effect of a foreshortened body. Furthermore, both Mantegna’s painting and Zviagintsev’s film heighten the corporeal nature of the Christ-like figure, emphasizing his genitals beneath the sheet.
Thus, the first and last shots of the father are structurally informed by a painting of a dead and fleshy Christ, which intimates that the father is doubly deceased: he is at least symbolically dead at the beginning of the film, and corporeally dead by the end. Because the father’s appearance in the film is framed by visual markers of his death, if he does represent a Christ figure, then he is an ineffective one at that, whose being and sacred texts were dead all along. It follows that there cannot be a resurrection: one cannot restore to life what ultimately never lived, and the film does not present a final resurrection of the father. Instead, at the end of The Return,the father’s body is literally and figuratively caught in a liminal space: literally, he is submerged under water, neither on the island nor on the mainland; figuratively, he caught between non-Christian and Christian, or Soviet and post-Soviet cultures. Moreover, his image is erased by the film’s final photographs, which do not contain a single image of the father from this recent journal.
The Journal: Structural Hieroglyphics
At a very basic level, The Return is the cinematic chronicle of the boys’ chronicling, the visual representations of their written words. Much like journal entries, a label that designates the day that the subsequent events occurred punctuates the beginning of each of the film’s seven segments. Moreover, because the boys take turns keeping the journal, the film pivots back and forth between their two perspectives. As such, the film may simply be read as the filmic journal of the boys’ week with their father.
However, this reading of The Return as cinematic representation of the boys’ journal entries is not without its complications. The journal hieroglyphics are problematized when we acknowledge that one of the film’s most important events—the father’s solitary journey to get the mysterious box—could not have been told by the boys. Moreover, this is the only scene in all of The Return that is not represented from the boys’ perspective after they have made a pact to keep a journal.
Because this scene exists, the validity of the journal is thrown into question. If the film does represent the visual chronicle of the boys’ chronicling, then the boys have obviously invented material, for they have told stories that they themselves have not witnessed. Their words then, do not necessarily match up with reality, but perhaps with a reality they wished had been. Furthermore, it is significant that the father is not depicted in any of the recent photographs displayed at the end of the film, which suggests a number of interesting readings. First, if the father is the symbolic representation of any of the earlier-mentioned dead ideologies, a chimera, then it follows that he cannot be captured on film. Second, because we cannot trust the validity of the boys’ journal, perhaps we cannot trust that the father really returned: did the boys simply invent him because of some unsatisfied need? Third, perhaps the film places the visual image in a dominant position over the written word, thereby indicating that post-Soviet culture is a largely visual one. In any case, the film reveals how the journal represents another master narrative that has lost its claim to Truth in post-Soviet Russia.
The Return is a film about a plurality of returns. On the surface level there is the return of a father to his family after a long absence, and the family tragedy that happens as a result. But on a number of symbolic planes, we have the return to Christianity, and the return to folklore—both mythological systems that have shaped and molded Russian culture in the past, and, as the film reveals, continue to influence Russian culture in the post-Soviet present. However, the film deconstructs each of these ideological systems, thereby denying their appeal to a transcendental truth. As a postmodern film about post-Soviet Russia, The Return’s brilliance lies in its portrayal of a realm that is constructed and influenced by narratives and ideological systems that have been delegitimated. Its beauty and complexity reside in its portrayal of this quandary that so dominantly characterizes post-Soviet Russia: what to do with the debunked past that nonetheless informs what Russia is today?
University of Colorado, Boulder
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1] From “Review of The Return from bbc.co.uk/movies.” December, 2004.
2] This official appropriation of fairytales and folklore began in the early 1930s when Yuri Sokolov declared its efficacy as a means of disseminating and encouraging Soviet party ideology among the people, arguing that “folklore is an echo of the past, but at the same time it is also the vigorous voice of the present.” Reiterating Sokolov, Maxim Gorky notoriously highlighted the potentiality of folklore and fairytales as propaganda tools in his keynote address to the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. Sokolov and Gorky’s call did not go unanswered: Stalinist Russia made a cult of Russian folklore.
3] The film’s folkloric elements have previously been pointed out by Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova in their 2010 KinoKultura review that compares Aleksei Popogrebskii’s How I Ended This Summer with Zviagintsev’s The Return.
4] The Christian imagery has been widely discussed by viewers of The Return. See Strukov 2007, and the “user comments” for the film on IMDB.
Abeel, Erica, 2000, “Return of the Prodigal Father; Andrey Zvyagintsev Talks About The Return.” indieWIRE. 2 February 2004
Boym, Svetlana, 1995, “From the Russian Soul to Post-Communist Nostalgia,” Representations 49 (Special Issue: Identifying Histories: Eastern Europe Before and After 1989): 133-166.
Condee, Nancy, “Introduction,” Soviet Hieroglyphics: Visual Culture in Late Twentieth-Century Russia, Nancy Condee (ed), Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1995, vii-xxiii.
Strukov, Vlad, 2007, “The Return of Gods: Andrei Zviagintsev’s Vozvrashchenie (The Return),” SEEJ, 51.2 (2007): 331-356.
Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003)
revisited by Meghan Vicks © 2011