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Aleksandr Sokurov: Father and Son (Otets i syn) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2003

 

We shall probably never find a festival where all the ratings favour the film that will win the main award. But the award of the FIPRESCI award to Sokurov’s Father and Son for the ‘masterful cinematography and inventive storytelling in describing an intense bond between father and son’ opinions diverged. Journalists rated the film rather low in the everyday ratings of films, giving it overall the comment ‘not liked at all’ or ‘a little’, and only a third of the journalists liked it a lot (followed by liking a film passionately and being in love with it). So there, Sokurov did not fare too well.

Father and Son portrays the relationship between father and his child, only the child is already a young man starting his military training. Yet from the beginning, showing the father embracing his son and the son clinging on to the father’s chest, Sokurov fails to address the process of maturing, denying the boy Aleksei a life of his own, and making him an ‘eternal’ child. The father (Andrei Shetinin) is overprotective, he is both a father and a mother figure, in the absence of a female character. He inhibits Alexei’s personal life and his ability to form a relationship with a girl: the woman is seen only through a window, and later from the balcony; she is an object beyond physical reach. On the wall in the boy’s room there is a picture of a sportswoman exercising her muscles. Woman as a figure that tries to resemble man is the only known female presence in the father’s apartment.

The Father observes his son at the military training to take pride in his offspring. He is too caring for the boy to develop: ‘A Father’s love crucifies, son’s love lets himself be crucified’. In his dreams, therefore, Aleksei kills his father in an attempt to cut himself free from the family ties, a natural process, but his father physically prevents him from such an escape and declares his dreams as terrifying nightmares, of which the boy must be afraid: in fact, these dreams are representative of the boy’s wish for independence and sexual awakening. Only the boy Kolia, who is visiting, and the neighbour Sasha are temporarily admitted into the household. Sasha wants to be part of the family, but is only next to them.

Father and son play children’s games on the rooftop, enhancing their closeness and their infantile state of mind, or maybe their purity. The physical closeness makes their relationship appear homoerotic, even if Sokurov disputes this interpretation as a purely Western invention of sick minds. Clearly, though, the film rejects the role of the female figure in life and history, making bondage possible only between men. Visually, the film contradicts Sokurov’s statements: the relationship between father and son is homoerotic, but there are also homosexual overtones in the relationship between the father and the other boys who visit.

Sokurov’s stern reaction of the homoerotic qualities which are clearly present in the film as inventions of sick European minds is contradicted when, in the press conference, he claims to draw on the rich European and Russian cultural heritage of the 19th century. He claims that he wanted to make film about Russian culture, traditions and moral superiority, and show human relationship as ‘beskonechno nezhno i teplo’. Any coldness and distance in a relationship between father and child would be criminal. Sokurov complains about the poshlost' of European culture, having shot his film in Lisbon, a city that is, according to Sokurov, not yet spoilt by the wave of globalisation and has not yet become a global village.

For Sokurov cinema exists to better man by showing him cultural and moral values of the 19th century. He comes close to Mikhalkov in his role as a missionary, attributing to cinema the task of betterment of human nature, and the task to defend Russia against the trash of American culture.

The role of a missionary seems highly inappropriate in contemporary European, world cinema, but seems to belong to another era, maybe to the Soviet times. However, what is curious is that Sokurov’s moralising tale of the need for warmth in human relations, for parental love tries to do the same thing as the film by Gus Van Sant, Elephant, which won the Palme d’Or. Although there could not be two more different films in terms of style. Elephant defends moral values: where Sokurov preaches, Van Sant holds up a picture that horrifies and is repulsive by its refusal to provide answers which are not there in reality. Van Sant lets cinema do no more than reality, denying it the right to offer explanations or answers where there are none. Or maybe there are, and we do not wish to address them?


Aleksandr Sokurov: Father and Son (Otets i syn) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2003

18/07/03