The Return (2003)

The Principals: Andrei Zvyagintsev (director) Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko

The Premise: A father (Lavronenko) abruptly reappears after 12 years away from his wife and two young boys, Andrey (Garin) and Ivan (Dobronravov).  The boys have no knowledge of their father beyond a single photograph and their mother’s insistence.  Father takes the two boys on a bonding trip through the Russian countryside, but his behavior is erratic and often cruel, and he offers no explanation for where he’s been. 

Is It Good:  It’s sparse and eerie, the kind of mysterious story you only find in Russia. It’s no less obtuse than Dostoyevsky, but is given a lot of warmth by the tender performances of Garin and Dobronravov.  The teenage Andrey accepts the man with surprising ease; young Ivan seethes with confusion and anger, emotions that aren’t soothed by their father’s coldness or blows.   I don’t think either young actor strikes a false note — there’s no silly pouting, no quirky dialogue that sounds more like a 32 year old pretending to be a kid.

It’s not an easy film to watch. There’s no answers.  Is this guy really their father, or a pretender? Where has he been? Why does he keep stopping to make phone calls? Was he a political prisoner? Is he into organized crime? Scanning reviews, I’ve seen a dozen theories and everyone seems convinced theirs is the right one and that it’s totally “obvious.”  Watch it and see if you agree. Even if you think your answer is the “totally obvious” one, I guarantee the ending isn’t predictable, and that it will leave you shaken.

Did I mention it was beautifully shot? A lot of Russian films that make a splash stateside tend to be based in the ruins of Soviet cities. They stick to familiar landmarks. You know you’re in Russia because St. Basil’s looms in the background. The Return dispenses with familiar landmarks and is set in the chilly countryside. The camera lingers over the cold seas and endless plains, and there’s not a flake of snow or ushanka to be found. It’s quite a refreshing look at a country which boasts a pretty varied landscape.   Depending on your point of view, Russia has never looked so inviting or so forbidding.

Is It Worth A Look:
Yes, absolutely.  Since it’s on Instant Watch, you don’t even need to hesitate.

Random Anecdotes:  Just in case you don’t shiver enough while watching it, young Garin drowned shortly after the film was completed.   I just now learned this while reading up on the film, and am absolutely horrified. I had entertained a faint hope audiences would see some great things out of both young performers.