Cinema Signal:

A History of the Russian and Soviet Film
by Jay Leyda

. "The Return" (aka, "Vozvrashcheniye")
(Should not be confused with the 2006 American film release)

This official Russian entry for Best Foreign Language Film (2003) by director Andrey Zvyagintsev sets a great mood and comes up with a quite original story line to justify its Golden Lion award in the Venice Film Festival but substitutes an arbitrary surprise ending for what might have been more integrity in character development. More on this later.

One day in modern Russia, a father (Konstantin Lavronenko) returns to his family after an unexplained absence of 12 years. To the close brothers Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), he's been little more than a face in a faded photograph. For reasons we can only guess, his wife (Natalia Vdovina) urges her husband to take the boys on a 3-day trip in his decrepit car, to include some fishing, some business and some growing up.

He seems like a man who has suddenly assumed command of his ship, learning the ropes of parenting as he goes along, but he also seems intent on instilling respect and manhood into his progeny. He scolds, tests, scrutinizes and teaches as they make their way across varied landscapes and colorful stops along the way. The boys fish, the father obtains a large, heavy object. It turns out to be an outboard engine, which he uses on a dinghy once he and the boys have water-proofed it sufficiently for a short ocean journey to an island. More lessons.

Despite the changing backgrounds, the story is tightly focused on the relationship as each of the men adapt to one another through a series of difficulties and confrontations. Ivan, the younger one, is resolute in his rebellious dissatisfaction, never able to entirely accept or take advantage of this new presence in his life or consider him as anything more than an adversary. Andrey, the older one, relishes it with immediate acceptance and bemusement, even as it entails discipline.

Ivan's contrary disobedience and testing meets with considerable parental patience and attempts at guidance, earning considerable sympathy for the father and his discomfort. The war is unrelieved until a climactic moment that has its tragedy but doesn't resolve any of the issues the film has been expertly tracing. Does the trip have any effect on the boys? Is this a rite of passage? Have they advanced in maturity or understanding?

Regretfully, what might have been a solid drama is undermined by characters who show no sign of change. It's the central problem of the piece, and it goes unresolved. Spoiler restraint forbids me from detailing it though I might say that it's possible the final turn in the plot was calculated to make a stronger impression on the festival circuit. But it creates a truncation that is arbitrary and disappointing because of the uniqueness of the film's driving concept, its excellent cast, the very capable work of cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman, and the fascinating movement of its landscapes, both visual and subjective.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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