Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Return

The Return
Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev
2003, Unrated by USA
4 stars
Russian with English subtitles
On video and DVD

A quality film is one that makes the audience think about what they have just seen. It gives clues and hints toward a deeper meaning, leading and coaxing the viewer to reflect and analyze the film to find what’s below the surface. This type of thought process is what makes a good film interesting—standing above the other shallow films in its depth and perception. The Return, a Russian film directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, fits this description of a quality film. While far from obscure, the simplicity of the acting, setting, and plot thinly disguise the more important psychological significance of the film.

The film itself is completely symmetric. Images and phrases from the beginning are repeated toward the end, sometimes serving as a contrast, and sometimes simply allowing for a recollection of the reasons and manners by which the characters had come to a particular point. The opening scene is actually the ending, and from these two extremes, the film works toward the middle symmetrically. It is broken up by days, and follows through one week, with Wednesday being the line on which the film reflects.

Throughout the film, The Return maintains a complete level of simplicity. While this may have been due to the exceptionally low budget, it gives the film an excellent air of mystery and seclusion as nothing else would have. The actors, while few, are perfect for their parts, fitting together and playing off each other naturally. The story centers around two brothers. The younger, Vanya, played by Ivan Dobronravov, seems moody and secretive, while his older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), is eager to be liked and regarded as a man. The world of these two adolescents is shaken by the sudden, unexpected appearance of their father (Konstantin Lavroneko) whom they only know through a single photograph. While Andrei is eager to gain his father’s love and approval, and accepts his presence unquestioningly, Vanya is doubtful and sullen, and unwilling to acknowledge this man as his father. Since their father’s disappearance twelve years prior, the two boys have had no male influence in their lives. They live with their mother and grandmother, and the only other people they seem to come in contact with are the boys who are Andrei’s friends. Because of this lack of a role model, both boys seem very immature—not in the usual raucous, juvenile sense of the word, for both boys are very serious and quiet, but in that they are irresponsible and emotionally young. As such, they are completely unprepared for the harsh, demanding way in which their father treats them. While taking them on a camping trip out to an island in the middle of nowhere, their father requires them to take responsibility and enter the world of adulthood. While at times overly harsh and violent, their father can also be kind and gentle. Throughout the film, however, the audience questions the real motive for their father returning. He seems completely unattached, and at times almost apathetic to the feelings and emotions of his sons, and appears only concerned with his mysterious and unexplained work which requires him to make frequent enigmatic phone calls and dig up buried boxes whose contents remain unknown. While Andrei tries to push his father’s lack of interest in them aside, Vanya can’t let it go. He questions his father’s motives repeatedly, and at times even questions the possibility of him really being their father. As Vanya, Dobronravov’s excellence as this moody character really shines, and throughout most of the film he takes the center stage. The twist in the end, however, brings Garin, as Andrei, to the foreground, and allows him to lead—and lead he does, quietly, and with a radiating power.

Despite the minimal budget, Zvyagintsev manages to create some very nice effects using camera angles, lighting, and color. Much of the film is very dark and colorless, with many dark blue, grey, and black hues. It is often raining, or threatening to rain. These techniques help set the serious mood, and perhaps also serve as a metaphor for the emotions brewing under the outwardly simple surface. With the camera, Zvyagintsev uses interesting angles and techniques to accentuate the emotions he wants the audience to feel in certain scenes. Top angles make dizzying heights all the more real, panorama shots give a sense of isolation, and even the focus of a conversation between characters can be changed, using a literal change in focus with the camera. Throughout the film, though, everything remains simple and low key. Even the music is sparse and quiet—haunting melodies that add to the melancholy mood.

The one flaw of the film is that it is rather heavy handed when it comes to foreshadowing and imagery. Different typical metaphorical images and phrases with the same connotation are placed heavily throughout the film—trapped animals, locked boxes, sunken objects, and the like—contrasting with the overall simplicity and sparseness present in the rest of the film. Throughout, many questions are presented to the audience. However, don’t expect them to all be answered in the end—they’re not. One of the best things about this film is being able to think it through and figure out what it means on your own. You may want to watch it over and over to sort out all the meanings. Turning it back in to the video store may be hard—you won’t want to return The Return.

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