Fables and fairy tales (ones that haven’t been Disneyfied) are often very dark and dreamlike. The universe runs on strange rules that are often capricious and dangerous. This perspective may be how the real world seems to a child, and it’s the way The Return (Vozvrashcheniye) looks to audiences.
The protagonist is Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), a petulant child of maybe 10 who is magnetically drawn to his older brother’s (Vladimir Garin) circle of friends. Ivan is too young to do everything they do, and when he can’t have his way he resorts to tattling to mother.
Standing in for capricious universal rules is father (Konstantin Lavronenko). Father had left them years ago, and he mysteriously returns one morning. Ivan and Andrei are afraid to ask why he’s been gone so long. We get the impression that, as the gruff and controlling head of the family, he wouldn’t feel obligated to answer, anyway. Andrei (Garin) is happy father has returned, but Ivan can’t forgive the man who left, nor is he ready to give this stranger — Ivan was too young to remember his father — any respect.
Lavronenko plays the father in a stylized manner. He’s more Ivan’s authority figure than his own man. He is mysterious, powerful, unfair, and he has a tension under the surface that indicates he is likely to snap at any moment. He’s not a villain. He has a father’s love and the desire to teach, protect, and toughen his boys. But that is probably lost on young Ivan who only sees an unfair disruption in his life.
Garin’s Andrei is a buffer between brother and father, which is another way of saying he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. He loves them both. He sympathizes with Ivan’s skepticism and need for love, but he also realizes that father knows best, and he is favored with dad’s approval in return (which makes Ivan even more jealous and petulant).
The cinematography by Mikhail Kritchman is outstanding. Not only is it beautiful, it is also evocative and meaningful. Early in the film when Ivan is trying to emulate his brother, jumping from a tall tower into the sea, Kritchman uses a very wide angle lens on a crane, capturing the terrified Ivan and the great height of the tower. Later, when father leaves Ivan on a bridge to go fishing, Kritchman and director Andrey Zvyagintsev slow down to capture the details. A truck off in the hazy distance makes no sound. When the sound of father’s car fades, there is near-total silence, broken only by the sounds from the creek below.
What’s it All about
The Return has a plot. It involves a fishing trip the three take together. You could also include father’s mysterious, possibly shady dealings that take the three to a remote island. But the plot is not what the movie is about, because it’s thin and seems to exist only for the interactions of the characters.
Sometimes when a movie’s plot doesn’t seem to be what the film is “about” it pays to look at the emotions. Is the emotional arc of the story complete at the film’s end? In this case, the answer is also “no.” The emotional resolution wouldn’t come until some time after the movie ends. On top of that, the film ends with a montage of photos from the trip that tell a completely different emotional story than the film itself tells. (The still photos are lies of omission and deliberate falsehoods, capturing only the fleeting moments of happiness and the forced smiles of posing for a picture. One can look like one is shouting for joy but in fact be shouting out of frustration.)
The best description of what the film is “about” comes from director Zvyagintsev himself, who says in the press notes that wants his film to be viewed mythologically. For a first-time director to make such a statement is bold. To ask his audiences to frame the movie his way is tantamount to an admission that what he puts on-screen isn’t self-explanatory. Luckily for him, the movie is good enough to survive his bold statement. Like a dark fairy tale, The Return shows the universe of a child upset by the return of a capricious and cruel authority figure who takes him on a long, strange trip.
The photographic montage is the icing on the cake, showing the audience that Ivan will remember that this trip was real and not a fable. It also shows that memory is both fallible and salving. He won’t remember the scary parts; he’ll only remember the fleeting moments of happiness and the smiles of posing for a picture.
Lots to Like
People who see film’s potential as art, and not merely media or entertainment, will find a lot to like about The Return. It transcends plot and emotion and aims for a part of the human mind that’s still developing when we are children. It’s a part of us that’s deeper than emotion or action, or even reason.