By the beginning of the new millennium, Russian film industry had stagnated; the transition from the Soviet system of state-funded film production to an ostensibly free market enterprise proved to be rather difficult. But in the 2000s a recovery movement began emerging, leading to an international resurgent prominence. Perhaps no other film underlines this as Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return.
The story begins with two kids, Ivan and his older brother Andrei, and their friends daring each other to jump from an abandoned tower into the cold water below in an archetypal test of masculinity. Those who cannot make the leap will be labeled a coward by their peers. Immediately we see the stage is set for the cultural battleground on which the narrative of The Return is fought: gender identity in contemporary post-Soviet Russia and what it means to be ‘a man’. After a quarrel with each other, they run home to their mother complaining, only for her to receive them with some shocking news: their father has returned after a 12-year absence.
The first shot we see of the father is him sleeping in a position that greatly imitates dead Christ that is depicted in Andrea Mantegna’s painting, The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (c. 1480). The boys then rush to the attic to retrieve a photo of the father is kept in the family bible, specifically on a page that depicts God’s intervention of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. Shortly after, the family eats its first meal together in twelve years, with wine and bread on the table. The scene encourages connections to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. There can be little doubt about the evocative religious symbolism, but because the father’s appearance in the film is framed by visual markers of his death, if he does represent a Christ figure, then he is an ineffective one at that. One cannot restore to life what ultimately never lived, and the film does not present a final resurrection of the father.
As the father takes his sons on a fishing trip, he exposes them to a set of stern tests as he demands obedience and respect. The use of the wind, the earth, and especially the rain are sublime, creating a harsh, bleak portrayal of nature that adjusts the tone perfectly in accordance with the characters.
Another dimension of the film appears, that of a folklore tale. The young Ivan here faces a quest similar to traditional folkloric hero Ivan the Fool: to go nobody knows where to find nobody knows what. However, Zvyagintsev’s cruel twist is glaring. The folkloric hieroglyphics of the film are deconstructed; a magical object is present, but it is lost, and thus rendered useless; the boys endure a long and tiring quest, but their transition from boyhood to manhood is stunted.
The Return is constructed as a richly multivalent text, yet it resists most attempts to decode or demystify it through its turbulent, interrogative technique. Heavily influenced by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, with elements of nature and religious symbolism throughout, Zvyagintsev creates a dilapidating threnody, a hymn of spiritual mourning. It is a lot more crucial to feel this film than to interpret it, as the director himself said, “I’m afraid there is no clue. You either perceive it or not. There are things which are without answers, and there is nobody who can explain them. Either we feel them and sense them, or not … art is not some sort of guideline for understanding. It’s a thing unto itself. The most important thing for me is the image, not the thought.”
As a visual poem, and like the greatest works of art, The Return is a devastating experience.
Further readings: http://www.ijors.net/issue2_1_2013/articles/mcSweeney.html