In director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s elusive but well-crafted fable, his feature debut, two adolescent brothers are suddenly confronted with the presence of a father who has been absent for 12 years. Since they were only babies when he left them with their mother, the boys remember their father only as a shadowy presence; the man who shows up is only superficially more substantial. Taciturn and ill-tempered, the father is remote, seemingly preoccupied and obviously not equipped to deal with young children. As for the boys, Ivan, the youngest, is suspicious and even a little resentful while the older boy, Andrey, is more receptive, getting a little buzzed over the father-son thing.
The film raises questions from the beginning and more as it goes along and answers none of them. Why has the father returned and why did he disappear in the first place? Why does he act like a man with a guilty secret and why does he take the boys along with him when he goes on some unexplained mission that culminates with retrieving some mysterious box from an abandoned ship? None of the questions are answered because the story is told from the point of view of the boys and the viewer is never privy to more information than they possess, which is very little.
At the start of the film, before the father shows up, Ivan, the youngest, seems the weaker of the brothers. We watch him being bullied and called a coward by a group of other boys because he won’t jump off a high tower into a river. But Ivan isn’t so much weak as he is stubborn, a fact that becomes clear as he keeps resisting his father’s attempts to assert authority, goading his old man to come up with harsher punishments. Meanwhile, Andrey, who easily jumped off the bridge, becomes passive in the face of his father’s force. It’s a battle of wills that escalates to a point of desperation.
Zvyagintsev has been compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, but it takes more than dreary weather and an elliptical story line to match that director’s dedication to profundity. Rather, The Return is an effective rendering of a child’s view of the grown-up world as something randomly menacing and ultimately mystifying. It’s a willfully unsatisfying story told with admirable skill.
In Russian with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, May 7-8, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, May 9, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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