Monday, February 17, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Return (2003) ***½

UR, 105 min.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksandr Novototskiy-Vlasov
Starring: Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Nataliya Vdovina

“The Return” is a devastating film from Russia that makes me wonder just how badly these filmmakers were hurt by their fathers as children. It involves two brothers who live with their mother and grandmother. One day their father, who has been absent for 12 years, shows up. No explanation is given as to where he has been or what he’s been doing. The boys had been told that he was a fighter pilot. That doesn’t appear to be the truth. The older boy, about 15, is thrilled to have his father back in his life. The younger brother, about 12, isn’t so sure how he feels about it.

The father invites them to go fishing. He’s not an open man. He’s gruff, and it doesn’t seem as if he really wants to be around the boys. He makes a phone call and abruptly changes their plans. Has this become a working holiday under very mysterious conditions? He takes the boys to an isolated island in the Black Sea, where he and the youngest enter a test of wills that has a shocking conclusion.

There is a sense of dread that runs throughout the film. At one point the older brother asks the younger to get an axe and the worst ideas ran through my head about just what he planned to do with the axe in their situation. His intentions were not quite so dark as I imagined, but I don’t think it was a mistake that I had the thoughts I did. Despite the fact that the filmmakers never quite take the boys to the horrific extremes it allows us to imagine, where they end up is a very dark place indeed.

It occurred to me that some of what happens might’ve been imagined. They boys take a camera with them and the pictures are shown at the end of the film. The father is curiously absent from all of their pictures. Did they imagine he returned? Again, I believe the possibility is supposed to be aroused in the audiences’ minds, but I think the filmmaker’s literal intentions are not so mysterious. The dad is real, what is a mystery is just what the boys are supposed to feel about that fact. Whether he is there now or not, the absence of 12 years has done its damage. They’ve learned to live with it, to bury their feelings about their essentially non-existent parent; but the inability to fill that void always remain, even if the father does return. The void cannot be erased even with the hope of being filled in the future. 

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