VOZVRASCHENIE (THE RETURN)
This depressing, spare Russian drama won some kind of award at the Venice film festival this year, so I figured it was worth a pirate. I didn't expect anything as killer as Bimmer, but I hoped that maybe it could be one of those horribly bleak movies like Vor, one of the best Russian films I've seen.
Vozvraschenie doesn't live up to the promise of a good ol' fashion Russian mood-fuck, although for the most part I'd say it's watchable and for awhile impressive. The boys in the movie are especially good actors. I don't know why it is that there seem to be so many convincing Russian child actors in movies that make you want to kill yourself, but there are. Put an American child in a movie, and you'll want to charge the screen with a thick belt held high above your head. Russian kids, however, are convincing (think Vor, or even Burnt By the Sun). They have all the pent-up egoism and curiosity that a child should have, not the stressed, eager-to-be-liked manner of most American children, which only reaches its grotesque nadir in American child actors.
In Vozvraschenie, two young boys live with their mother and babushka in some shitty Russian village izba by the sea. The mom is too much of a babe and I found that distracting when I should have been depressed or contemplative. The younger boy is a coward, the older confused. One day, their father returns home. He hasn't been home in like a decade. No one knows why. And no one knows why he's returned. He's just there, this big unshaven uber-fatherly presence, sleeping on the bed.
At first it's interesting to watch as the boys observe and react mutely to their macho, laconic father eating and drinking wine at the table as if the house had always been his. By Western standards, he's almost a caricature of maleness, but maybe that's how it really is. If the women here can cultivate exaggerated feminine mannerisms, I suppose the men here can do the same.
There was a menace and awe about the father that hypnotizes the boys. Their reaction, drawn to him but afraid, is almost canine. The older son in particular will follow his father to the end. However -- yes, there has to be a dramatic tension here -- the younger boy, the coward and mama's boy, rejects his father. What he needs is just a good smacking, but the father is trying to earn his respect. That sounds bad, I know, but the acting keeps you interested longer than you might otherwise have been.
This is the best part of the film, when the drama and characters slowly reveal themselves.
And from there, once you get the hang of the dramatic tension, it's all just too much "slowly." The father doesn't speak much; the younger boy whines and makes a scene; the father demands to be respected; the younger boy refuses, older son stands loyally by dad; the father punishes the young boy; the younger boy caves, bawling, then starts the whole scene over again. Over and over and over.
I dunno. Okay, maybe it's real, but that doesn't mean I want to watch it. There's a whole "coming to terms with your father" genre in American fiction that makes me...ew. You know? Not my bag, folks. Leave fathers alone. It's embarrassing enough as it is to be a father and have your son suddenly become conscious of you and all your failings. But does there have to be a "moment"? Who benefits?
After awhile, I started thinking of that one great letter in sic that we got some time ago comparing Russians to blacks: "Russians grow up without fathers; Negroes grow up without fathers..."
Another thing I didn't like about the film was its location. It was somewhere on the sea, but naturally, since this is Russia, the sea is more like a black dead swamp. Give me the flat bleak landscape of Bimmer any day.
Remember in case this movie doesn't bum you out enough, the actor who plays the loyal older son died in real life a few months after the film was made...in a drowning accident. Life doesn't immitate art. Life is shit.