Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev. Russia. 2004.

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2004 saw the coincidence of the near-simultaneous UK releases of two award-winning foreign-language films which are both about a character who causes disruption by turning up out of the blue, which have both been described as "Tarkovskian", and, most remarkably, which both have a leading actor who was killed shortly after completion. The first, Uzak by the Turkish director Ceylan, was (for me) somewhat over-rated, though this may well be a deficiency in myself. But the second film, The Return, the debut feature of Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, justly deserves that over-used epithet "masterpiece". It is certainly the best Russian film I have seen since Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997), and (for me) the best new release of 2004.

Two young brothers come home from play to find a stranger whom their mother claims to be their father, returned after 12 years’ unexplained absence. Neither boy remembers him but the elder, Andrei, believes him to be their father while the younger, Ivan, has doubts. The stranger insists on taking them on a week-long fishing and camping trip (though he doesn’t like fish) in the bleakly beautiful wastelands of northern Russia, during which the boys’ contrasting reactions are deepened, while the man makes mysterious phone calls, refers at one point to his "business", and is seen (by us, not by the boys) to be investigating what appears to be buried treasure. Towards the end of the week an unexpected turn of events changes matters completely, and the sight of a photograph hints at - but I’ll say no more!

The Return was described in most reviews as a "thriller". It is certainly tense in parts, but anyone hoping for a neat tying-up-of-loose-ends will be disappointed. Rather, it is one of those films (Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice is a classic case) which we can interpret how we wish. Most directly, it is a subtle and absorbing study of father-son relationships, the father (if indeed it is he) trying to teach the boys to fend for themselves, the sons reacting in their very different ways. The central consciousness, if any, is that of the younger son Ivan, and it is he in particular who experiences a coming-of-age, a "getting of wisdom". The actor playing the older boy, Vladimir Garin, was tragically drowned after the film’s completion.

For anyone familiar with Tarkovsky’s films the references are obvious. In particular there are at least three striking early images which are almost reconstructions from well-known scenes in Mirror; even the actress who plays the boys’ mother strongly resembles the mother in Mirror. References to Ivan’s Childhood and Stalker can also be found. Some viewers may be reminded of The Return of Martin Guerre and even, in a key scene, of Vertigo. The Return is not, however, shot in the Tarkovskian style of contemplative extended takes. Some have seen biblical references in the film (the seven days, named at the start of each of the seven sections, as the Days of Creation, or the "father" as a God-figure, especially in our first sight of him which is a direct reference to Mantegna’s painting of the dead Christ). I would not go that far, but the stunning land- and seascapes have a mythic, almost spiritual, quality. 

On a technical level the acting, not least that of the two boys, is totally assured, the cinematography is at times breathtaking, and the brooding musical score catches the ominous mood perfectly. If this director can produce more of the same quality, those of us who admire Russian cinema are in for some real treats.

Alan Pavelin
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