The Return (Vozvrashchenie) (2003)

The Return first published by Movie Gazette

One Sunday on an isolated stony pier, some boys goad one another on to jump from a tall wooden tower into the water far below. The older of the two remaining boys, Andrej (Vladimir Garin), desperate not to be thought a coward by his peers, takes the leap, but his younger brother Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) stays up there, too scared to jump but too ashamed to climb down – until, hours later, their mother (Natalia Vdovina) persuades him to descend (“You can jump another time – I’m here with you”).

The Return (Vozvrashchenie) is concerned with the unexpected return, after a twelve-year absence, of the boys’ father (Konstantin Lavronenko – think a Russian Billy Bob Thornton), who takes his sons on a fishing/business trip that ends in intrigue and tragedy on a deserted island – but all of the motifs which appear in its opening sequence – high towers, dangerous waters, brotherly conflict, fear of the unknown, and the terrifying, exhilarating plunge into adulthood – will also make a return to the surface.

The Return was originally scripted by Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky as a conventional thriller, but in his impressive cinematic debut, director Andrey Zvyagintsev has stripped down the screenplay, pushing all genre elements to the film’s murky margins. Instead the boys’ differing relationships to their father (Andrej all obedient and eager to please, Ivan suspicious and reluctant to be initiated into manhood) is brought into intense focus, so that the film’s many unresolved mysteries – who is the father and why has he returned? where has he been to make him so sick of the taste of fish? what exactly is the nature of his business and why is he so determined to get to the island? – seem merely to underscore the boys’ rites of passage that form the film’s fundamental mystery.

The plot of The Return, its isolated locations and its tiny cast of characters (only two of whom are named in the film) are all marked by an austere economy, but Zvyagintsev makes such minimalism resonate deeply with mythological and religious symbolism. Its events span seven days (the length of the Creation), Ivan’s relationship with his parents is positively Oedipal, while the father falls somewhere between a returned Odysseus, a resurrected Jesus and a revenant ghost. So the world of The Return is, for all its starkness, full of evocative detail, recalling the poetic suggestiveness of the films of Tarkovsky. Indeed, The Return which won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, might just herald the return of great Russian cinema.

Summary: Hauntingly sombre coming-of-age tale, with just the bare bones of a mystery plot.

© Anton Bitel