Russia revisited | The Velvet Café

thereturnLet’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

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