The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Russia revisited

with 32 comments

Let’s play a game. I say: “Russian movie”.

What’s the first image that comes into your mind?

I bet it’s not something sparkly, fun and colourful. While I don’t doubt that Russia gets their fair share of rom-coms and musicals, it’s not our first association.

When I think of Russian movies, I see greyish landscapes that God forgot, deserted towns with houses in decay. If you spot any people at all in the image, they have stone faces, frozen after years of suffering under oppression and poverty. Everything is swept into a blanket of sadness and vague existential ruminations. Somewhere under all those layers of stone and ice you sense a hidden, pounding heart, longing to be let out from the prison.

It’s a miserable image, but also somehow beautiful. Few can beat the Russians when it comes to the nuances of grey or the intensity of melancholia.

Confirming prejudices
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s debut film The Return from 2003 confirms rather than challenges my prejudices. It’s pretty much exactly what I expect Russian movies to be: serious, with a strong emphasis on black, white and grey (even if it strictly speaking is a colour movie), rather quiet and raising existential and psychological issues. It doesn’t bounce. It walks slowly towards a darkening horizon.

It IS a stereotype, but actually stereotypes aren’t necessarily evil, not if you’re attracted to them, which I am in this case.

The story goes like this: two boys grow up without their father. One day he returns out of the blue after twelve years of absence. We never get to learn much about his background, what he’s been up to or why he is returning, but he appears to be good at survival, hardened by life itself. The father takes his two sons along on a fishing tour for a few days. It doesn’t take long before it stands clear that he’s is at loss of how to approach his children, being abusive, stern and unloving. The boys try to handle this as best they can, but the conflicts appear soon enough and they keep growing throughout the movie, while one of the brothers get more and more miserable.

At a budget of below 500 000 dollars, this movie is amazing, with an exquisite cinematography and remarkable acting.

Stripped down from anything excessive such as background story and explanations, it leaves a lot open to interpretations. For instance I’m pretty sure there must have been a religious theme. Why else would the family share a meal that unquestionably is the last supper, sharing bread and wine before the male members head out for their journey? But as for the rest of the biblical references, I have no idea of what to make of them. The father certainly doesn’t resemble the slightest to Christ; if anything he’s the opposite.

Coming of age story
I didn’t watch this movie through any allegory grid – religious or political. I watched a coming of age story. I watched a movie about grief for a father who isn’t there, not even when he’s returned physically, a father who-  if he loves his children, which I suppose he’d claim he does if asked about it – is completely unable to express it. I watched a story about the bonds and boundaries between brothers.

I can’t remember last time I watched a Russian movie. It must have been Tarkovsky in the mid 80s. The Return reminded me about their beauty and quality.

No pun intended – it’s about time I return.

The Return (Vozvrashchenie, Andrei Zvyagintsev, RU, 2003) My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

September 16, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in The Return

32 Responses

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  1. “Russian ark”. But I guess that is because of the title. Not exactly the stereotype. “Solaris” (ok, soviet). A little closer.

    But right after that it was “The Return” – for some, different reasons. I liked that movie, visually and the tone; I didn’t know exactly what to do with it; and because I didn’t know how to handle it read the trivia on Imdb (what I rarely do) where there is the information that one of the boy actors drowned in a lake nearby shortly after the movie shooting.

    I would have been wrong with the next on my list, “Lilja 4-ever”. I now see it isn’t even a Russian co-production, Swedish alone.

    Oh, Eisenstein, of course. Animation.


    September 16, 2011 at 2:34 am

    • Lilja 4-ever is indeed Swedish. Actually it did strike me as I watched The Return that the landscape was a bit Swedish. The pine forrest could as well have been shot in Scandinavia. I thought to myself: while I think Swedes mentally connect more to England and Germany, turning our heads towards the south and southwest, we probably actually have a lot more in common with Eastern Europe than we admit to ourselves.

      I read about the drowning too. It’s sad and feels like a strange coincidence considering the dark content of the movie.


      September 16, 2011 at 8:09 am

      • I forgot the latest Russian movie I watched: “Kukushka”. Not surprising, it really misleads as it is shot completely in outdoor Finland; the languages spoken are Sami, Finnish and Russian, each by their own character and not understood by the others. A fun movie absolutely worth watching.


        September 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm

  2. Oooh! Nightwatch…I loved it! We also had the pleasure of watching it with a friend who had lived in Moscow and knew some Russian, so she was able to point out little subtle details. I loved the strangeness of the tale, the strangeness of the characters, and the complexity of the tales. It was dark, yes. And there’s a dark humour in places. But I loved it enough to go out and get the book.

    In places it felt very much like any other film set in a city, except there was much less in your face advertising, bright lights and CSI: Hollywood style panning and far more concentration on the plot- the setting worked very well. There was a certain greyness and shabbiness to things in places, but it worked.

    And darn, I want to watch it again, but I’ve a busy weekend ahead of me. Meh.


    September 16, 2011 at 3:19 am

    • There’s no rush! There are always libraries you know. 😉 I was fortunate to stumble upon this one in my own. I had completely forgotten about Russian movies and how different they are.


      September 16, 2011 at 8:11 am

    • Oh! They made a movie of that book? Come to think of it, I read about that they were going to make it, but that was before I read the books so it didn’t really stick in my mind. Thanks for the reminder – if the movie is anything like the book it will be something to look forward too.

      (It’s only the first book they made a movie of? Or more of them?)


      September 16, 2011 at 4:51 pm

      • I looked it up at IMDB and it seems as if Night watch is based on a book. Looks interesting if you ask me. And not quite the stereotype I wrote about.


        September 16, 2011 at 11:50 pm

      • Syrien, yes, they did. There’s Day Watch too, which was released in 2006. We have that as well. In fact, that may be our evening sorted!

        Links to both Night Watch and Day Watch here.


        September 20, 2011 at 8:29 pm

        • I am even more impressed with them making a movie of Day Watch – wonder if they kept up the different stories that only become a whole towards the end? (Hopefully I am recalling the right book in the series now).

          If they managed to translate the feel of the book, it is both so instant-classic urban fantasy that it feels universal, and at the same time so grey, defaitist, depressive-yet-we-keep-going-cause-what-else-is-there, that they feel so Russian you can’t imagine them coming from anywhere but there. (A small voice in the back of my head is saying, in the voice of Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova when accused of pessimism: “I’m Russian, commander. We know these things.”)


          September 20, 2011 at 9:23 pm

          • They do, I think, I’d like to rewatch and re-read to clarify, but it felt like that to me initially. And no, we didn’t watch it tonight. We…er…watched some Babylon 5 instead, so yes, I hear that small voice too!


            September 21, 2011 at 1:20 am

            • Babylon 5 is one of those TV series I keep coming back to. The first sci-fi I learned to love 🙂


              September 21, 2011 at 10:45 pm

  3. Hmm. I really should watch STALKER again sometime. It’s sucha beautifully shot movie.


    September 16, 2011 at 3:22 am

    • Me too. I remember how much I loved it, that it was one of my favorite sci-fi movies ever, but to be honest I don’t remember the movie. I need to track it now and see if I can get hold of it.


      September 16, 2011 at 8:14 am

  4. Oh, I absolutely loved The Return. It is truly a beatiful film. Here’s my review (in swedish):


    September 16, 2011 at 8:09 am

  5. I am genuinely embarassed to say my answer would be….


    I am not very good at this game. Nice post as ever Jessica

    Scott Lawlor

    September 16, 2011 at 10:17 am

    • Thanks! The fact that you don’t have prejudices about Russian movies is not necessarily a bad thing, rather the opposite.


      September 16, 2011 at 10:54 am

  6. This reminds me that The Return is on my “to-watch” list 🙂

    Seen Stalker this week which confirms pretty much everything you said. Half the movie is shot in Sepia, the other half in color: gray landscapes, abandoned power stations, abandoned factories,… It’s not a movie that makes you happy.

    I did see Mongol a few months ago which was totally different. It’s a Russian movie following Genghis Khan which showed us the Mongolian steppes in all its details.

    Looking it up on imdb, I actually only saw 4 Russian movies in total. They’re not very popular.


    September 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    • Well… while I love to watch movies that make me happy, this doesn’t rule out that movies that make me unhappy can be good watches too once in a while. If you generally don’t like Russian movies all that much this one may not be for you. But let’s see what you make of it. I certainly won’t try to talk you out of having it on your to-watch-list! 🙂


      September 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  7. Think its time you watch one of those chinese films now, how can I keep teaching you things if you just ignore my advice. 😛


    September 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    • 🙂
      I don’t ignore them! I just have an incredibly long to-watch queue at the moment. But I really want to expand my film watching eastwards. It’s a big void to me now and I’m honestly quite ashamed about my ignorance.


      September 16, 2011 at 2:28 pm

  8. When I think of Russia and film in the same thought I always think winter. I have yet to see a film in Russia which did not, at some point, includes copious snow (though I haven’t watched all that many).

    Lewis Maskell

    September 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    • No snow in The Return, actually. Actually it’s summer, or at least they’re swimming in the beginning. But it looks pretty cold if you ask me. Like a Swedish summer. 🙂


      September 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      • Would that be the same as an English or a Danish summer then? 😀

        Lewis Maskell

        September 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm

        • Scottish I would say. My prejudices tell me that Denmark and England get more sun.


          September 16, 2011 at 2:59 pm

  9. I see this movie so much different. Guess because I’m Russian (and half of the moves I’ve ever seen are Russian or Sovjet, which is is same for me)

    You say grey, I say hey, it’s nature, wildness, has nothing to do with a country. Even the town in the start of the movie look like part of the nature.
    You do not see father’s love. I do. It’s different, it’s odd, it’s rude, but it’s there. Father who care though do not look, who teach how to be strong, not smart or sensitive. Father who bring there sons into something from grounups life, instead of taking them into playground. deadly dangerous and more real because of it.
    You found younger brother miserable, I found elder brother too soft. Different world, different lessons.

    I guess director from western world could tell similar story taking us into history, into some barbarian world, but I wouldn’t believe that story.


    September 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    • Thank you for commenting on this movie Doaken. I hoped you would, bringing an insider’s perspective on this movie. Maybe your way of seeing it hasn’t only got to do with differences in our cultures. I’m honestly not the first one to talk about gender differences; as a matter of fact I often deny there are any at all. But maybe in this case there could be something in this “fatherhood” that I just can’t see, which you can see. I identify so much stronger with the mother, the scene in the beginning. The unconditional love. The safety she provides. Again: this father/mother theme actually reminds me a bit of Tree of Life, if you’ll see that movie at some point in the future. I didn’t think about the parallell until now, but the more I think of it, the more I see it. The principles of grace and nature. Maybe it’s actually represented in this movie as well. Hmm… Got to think about this further.
      Anyway: lovely to get your perspective. And I’ve actually got a Russuan movie on my agenda now so hopefully there will be more to come in this area soon.


      September 16, 2011 at 11:58 pm

  10. The miserable image of Russian cinema brings me great joy. I dunno why, I’m not that much of a downer in real life, but I enjoy the bleak beauty Russian artists have been capturing magnificently for years. This is one of the best films I’ve seen from this country, but I certainly need to catch up with a lot more.

    I’d highly recommend watching Ostrov, another great Russian film. It’s not quite as bleak and I like the story a lot more.

    James Blake Ewing

    October 5, 2011 at 5:17 am

    • Ostrov? I’ve never heard of it but I’ll remember that. I really have plans on watching more Russian movies and I have a few suggestions now from a Russian movie loving friend of mine.


      October 5, 2011 at 9:27 am

  11. […] was beautifully shot and as bleak as you could imagine, every moment oozing of Russian melancholy. I fell in love with it and thought that this was a director I wanted to return […]

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