The Banishment (Izgnanie) (2007)

The Banishment first published by Film4

Synopsis: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Bible-inflected follow-up to The Return banishes a family forever from its fragile idyll.

Review:  If Andrey Zvyagintsev’s astonishing debut The Return (2003) was a barebones mystery thriller whose characters and their interrelationships were elevated to the realm of mythic archetypes, then his long-awaited second feature The Banishment, pulling off a similar trick and once again starring Konstantin Lavronenko as an errant father, might be regarded as the return of The Return.

Certainly the sequence that begins The Banishment, in which Mark (Alexander Baluev) speeds from the country to an anonymous industrialised city to get a bullet removed from his arm by his brother Alex (Lavronenko), is suggestive of a conventional thriller – but the opening wideshot image of a large, lone tree in a field points, along with the film’s title, to a broader frame of reference. For under the shadow, as it were, of that solitary tree of life and knowledge, Alex and his wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie) will find themselves reenacting the Fall of Man, as a moral error made by Alex will lead to the irreversible banishment of his family from the Eden that they have made together. And in case the allusion to Genesis is missed, Zvyagintsev decorates the countryhouse which is the film’s principal setting with pictures of Adam and Eve, and even inserts a scene early on where Alex’s young daughter Eva (Katya Kulkina) is offered – and rejects – an apple.

The story in The Banishment is deceptively simple, and unfolds at a languorous pace that might test the patience were it not for the breathtaking beauty of cinematographer Mikhail Kricjhman’s every immaculately framed shot. When Alex gets unspecified work in the country, he moves back into his late father’s house with Vera and their children Eva and Kir (Maxim Shibaev). That night, Vera announces to her husband: “I’m expecting a child. It’s not yours.” Alex refuses even to hear Vera’s faltering attempts to explain herself, and over the next few days, he struggles to contain his anger and to come to the ‘right’ decision over what needs to be done. Eventually, he turns to Mark for help – and then everything goes tragically wrong, as a dizzyingly rapid series of catastophes is accompanied by revelations of how little Alex (or indeed the viewer) has understood of Vera’s strange predicament.

Much of The Banishment takes place either within the shadows of the country house, or in the half light of dusk – and if it turns out that Alex has been blundering about for answers in the dark, then his blindness, both intellectual and moral, is reflected in the games of his children. First they play hide and seek in the wood, and then they are shown painstakingly piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of Da Vinci’s The Annunciation (in which, significantly, an angel informs the innocent Mary of her conception). Indeed the film itself, like this jigsaw, conceals a bigger picture that emerges only gradually to reward those with staying power (and that will doubtless not be every viewer). The dialogue may be sparse, the action infrequent, but here everything shimmers, at least retrospectively, with hidden resonances, while the film’s final images shift the story’s already vague particularities to a purely symbolic level of eternal return.

Adapted from William Saroyan’s 1953 novella The Laughing Matter, Zvyagintsev’s film is a timeless tragedy about the failure of love and the loss of paradise. The narrative’s many abstractions and ellipses are anchored by the naturalism of the performances – and what is more, the film is an absolute visual treat, including amongst its aesthetic highlights some cuts so mesmerisingly fluid that it takes a moment to realise that the action has shifted in both space and time, and a long tracking shot over a rivulet of water (and the discarded objects, not to mention reflections, therein) that evokes a similar sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), without in any way paling in comparison to Russia’s grand master of cinema.

In a nutshell: In Zvyagintsev’s second feature, a timeless tragedy unfolds in slow motion – but the viewer’s patience is rewarded with exquisite painterly images, some unexpectedly rapid developments, and a truly bleak vision of human error and its consequences.

© Anton Bitel