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Andrei Zviagintsev: The Return (Vozvrashchenie) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2004

Labelled as heir to Tarkovskii, Andrei Zviagintsev has recently risen to fame as the winner of two Golden Lion Awards of the 2003 Venice IFF. Zviagintsev never trained as a director, but is an actor by profession; and this is debut film. Nevertheless, the critics’ and audience responses unanimously labelled Zviagintsev the new Tarkovskii, and compared the film The Return with Ivan’s Childhood, which had won the Golden Lion in 1962, largely because of the religious symbolism of the film and the construction of frames that imitate the compositions of renaissance depictions of Christ.

The Return tells the story of a father who returns after twelve years of absence to his wife and his two boys, Ivan (aged 12) and Andrei (aged 15). He takes the boys fishing, but along the way he has to complete an urgent job and retrieve a coffer from an island. The father is strict with the children, and when the boys come back late he hits the older brother. The younger boy threatens the father with a knife, but – frightened by his own aggression – runs away and climbs onto a makeshift observation tower (although he is afraid of heights), threatening to jump if the father comes any closer. The father follows him, but falls off the tower when a wooden plank becomes undone. The children pull the body to the boat and return to the mainland; as they disembark, the boat drifts back onto the open sea and sinks. The boys return home. Apart from the Return of the father at the beginning of the film, there is the Return of the boys home after the end of the film. There is the Return to cinematic traditions of the 1960s manifest in the films of Tarkovskii and Antonioni, with all the corresponding religious symbolism. And therefore there is the Return of Christ, or a Christ-like figure, onto the screen (world). The Return is divided into sections, covering the seven days of the working week, or the seven days of God’s creation of the world. This double significance immediately establishes the two main levels on which the film can be read: the everyday and the religious.

   

On the everyday level the film explores the relationship between father and son(s), a theme dominating several new Russian films (Sokurov’s Father and Son, Aleksei Popogrebskii and Boris Khlebnikov’s Koktebel). If the film is read as a family drama, then the father is an unjust and cruel who shows hardly any love for his children. In fact, they even have to look at a photograph to identify that he is their father. He reprimands the children, never praising them or encouraging them. In this respect, Ivan’s rejection of the father as a figure of authority and the ensuing disrespect are a most natural response, much more so that Andrei’s unfounded and unlimited admiration for the father and his agreement with anything the father suggests. In modern terminology, Andrei is a creep, Ivan a rebellious ‘difficult’ child. The father acts even irresponsible, when leaving Ivan behind on the road as a punishment for his moaning that they can’t carry on fishing, or when he gives them alcohol on two occasions without explaining why (welcome, warming up). He exhausts them physically to their limits, making them row when the engine of the boat fails, and push the car when it is stuck on the muddy road. The father is inconsistent in his behaviour: he first declares that they will go fishing; then he has an urgent job to do and puts them on a bus to return home; then he takes them off the bus and makes them accompany him on the ‘treasure hunt’. He offers no help with the fishing, with preparing food, with building the tent. When Andrei is robbed of the wallet, he forces them to punish a thief; the children forgive the thief, and the father cannot even in this role provide a Christian model, but picks up the children’s view and gives the boy-thief money for food. While he is not exactly a role model as a father, he forces the children to call him Father (otets) rather than ‘dad’.

On the religious level this Father makes his first appearance as a risen Christ figure straight from Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over Dead Christ (1490). The boys rush onto the attic, where they search for a picture of their father, which they find this in an old edition of the bible, richly illustrated with etchings. Then they go to the dinner table, replicating the last supper, where the father shares wine and bread (here the chicken) with his disciples, or his family. The children are called – with the names of two apostles – Andrei and Ivan.

The implication that the return of the father is the return of Christ, who remains unrecognized, does not quite work: if he is Christ, then his conduct offers no model to be followed. Ivan is right to doubt him and challenge his authority. If all men were to follow without challenge and thought any Father-figure, then we would be looking at political and moral dictatorships (let us remember only one Father of the Nation: Stalin). Such an absolute and devout following of a figure, who neither inspires trust nor respect, is a concept that is not suitable for the modern world.

On the everyday level, the boys never experienced what it is really like to have a father, who cares for them and loves them, who provides leadership and knowledge. Thus the film continues the theme of fatherless-ness so common in Russian cinema.


Andrei Zviagintsev: The Return (Vozvrashchenie) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2004

31/01/04