How best to describe the new Russian film The Return? Road movie? Coming-of-age drama? Psychological thriller? Even, quite conceivably, veiled religious parable? However you classify this elusive debut from director Andrei Zvyagintsev, it's clear why The Return deserved its Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. This is a somewhat old-fashioned, no-frills art film, telling a simple, gripping story: two adolescent boys go on a trip with their long-absent, oddly menacing father. And yet Zvyagintsev also manages to evoke something distinctly uncanny shifting under the surface.
Set over seven days in a nondescript coastal region of Russia, the film begins with a trauma: young Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) balks at the game his friends are playing - leaping off a high tower into the sea. Terrified, he won't jump, yet refuses to climb down, fearing ridicule. The next day, Ivan and his older brother Andrei (Vladimir Garin) find that their father has mysteriously returned home - but from where, and after how many years? First seen asleep, in a pose oddly reminiscent of certain paintings of the dead Christ, Father (Konstantin Lavroneko) wakes to join his family at table, and preside over the breaking of bread and pouring of wine.
If this taciturn, bearded figure is presented as a sort of resurrected Jesus, he seems more forbidding than tender. The fascinated Andrei instantly accepts his authority, while it's the seemingly timorous Vanya who shows every sign of rebelling. When Papa takes the boys on a fishing trip, the tensions fully emerge. He seems to want to make men of his lads, but his actions seem strangely cruel. He watches from a distance as his sons are robbed, then catches the culprit and demands that they punish him. When Vanya defies him, Papa leaves him stranded in the middle of nowhere, then fetches him hours later in pouring rain. The party's ultimate destination is an island, where the conflict comes to a head at another tower, concluding the story in eerily circular - not to say flagrantly Freudian - style.
The story is channelled through the perceptions of the boys - Ivan especially - who keep asking questions, but get no answers. Is this man really their father? Why has he returned? Who are his phone calls to, and what is his real business on the road? And what exactly does he want of his sons? On a symbolic level, his purpose is clear. He's there to turn them into men, not just by subjecting them to the rigours of the road, but also by issuing a challenge: either embrace his tyranny, or rebel, as Ivan does in the inevitable oedipal showdown.
The Return has been compared to Tarkovsky, and some of its images of desolate nature are Tarkovskian in a minor-key way - notably, a shot of wind rippling through long grass. But its overall mood has more in common with Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, partly because of both films' marine setting, partly because of the perpetual sense that an ostensibly benign situation might erupt dangerously at any moment.
Apart from an uncanny image at the very end - the only outright hint of the supernatural - The Return seems perfectly naturalistic, yet Zvyagintsev pushes the story in a mythic direction. Shrouded in a waterproof as the boys row through heavy rain, Papa resembles a sinister monk or the funereal ferryman Charon. The film's landscape is a vast, desolate nowhere, cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman turning this corner of Russia into a mapless, fragmented geography of abandoned back roads and becalmed stretches of water (at one point, the family passes near a place called Beketovo, which sounds a suitably Beckettian landmark for such an existential trek). The ominous mood is sometimes enhanced by such enigmatic camera movements as a slow creep along a deserted road or down through branches - as if an invisible observer is watching events just after the players have left the scene.
Zvyagintsev seems to choose his cast partly for their looks, which have the starkness of archetypes. As the boys' mother, Natalia Vdovina is coolly pensive, sensual and melancholic in an almost exaggeratedly Slavic way. The rugged Lavronenko suggests an abstraction of the gruff Russian masculinity that the boys themselves might have seen in films, as if they have conjured up a flawed ideal of their absent father.
The boys complement each other beautifully. Dobronravov, the younger of the two, is totally compelling: whether shivering in terror at the start, or, later, looking daggers at his father, he has an astonishing intensity for a child actor. In the shots where he turns to stare angrily past the camera, we see as galvanising a child's glare as any in cinema since Jean-Pierre Léaud in Les 400 Coups. As the tougher but more compliant Andrei, Vladimir Garin has the look of a bruised, frostbitten Botticelli angel; given the film's partly aquatic theme, it's bitterly ironic that shortly after the film was made, he died in a drowning accident.
For all its lacunae and unearthly resonances, The Return can be taken at face value as a powerful story of family conflict, yet it's tempting to detect a certain political subtext. You could read the film as a drama set in a politically "orphaned" Russia, nostalgic for the reassurances of the old paternal, authoritarian state. Perhaps the implication is that only by imagining and confronting a symbolic return of such patriarchal rule can the new Russia - itself roughly the same age as the film's adolescent heroes - complete its transition to adulthood. Take it or leave it, this reading still doesn't begin to explain the irreducible strangeness of a film that tells a story so universal it could be set anywhere from Novosibirsk to Nebraska.
Finally, a correction. Reviewing The Cooler last week, I pointed out, rather ambiguously, that director Wayne Kramer was not to be confused with "the late MC5 guitarist". In fact, his namesake is neither deceased nor the band's former guitarist: he's both alive and kicking, as is the reformed MC5 itself.