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[whitespace] 'The Return'
Ivan and Andrey Go Boating: Two young brothers take an ominous journey with their laconic father in 'The Return.'

Father's Day

Two boys struggle to understand their father's 'Return' in a brilliant new film from Russia

By Richard von Busack

CONSIDERING its simple, intimate focus, The Return is a tremendously powerful film. It's specific to Russia; the action takes place in those eternally half-finished concrete buildings and the solemn, empty forests and lakes. The countryside--I think it's the lake country in Karelia, north of St. Petersburg--looks as vast as the rainy shores of Lake Superior. Two landmarks bookend the film: a pair of rotting guard towers, whose guards have long since gone. In a movie this pregnant with meaning, the two towers bear their own symbolic value: the protectors have vanished, and a failure of fatherhood seems to match the broken promises of a fatherland.

Despite its Russianness, The Return is completely universal, as it comments upon the mutual distrust between fathers and sons that goes all the way back to the day Abraham told Isaac he had a surprise waiting for him on the mountaintop. Director Andrey Zvyaginstev and his cameraman, Mikhail Krichman, make The Return an elemental study about a pair of sons in the uneasy custody of their father, whom they cannot, and perhaps should not, trust. One day, after a Sunday of roughhousing and swimming, the undersized Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and his older brother, Andrey (Vladimir Garin), arrive home and find their father napping on their mother's bed. It has been 12 years since he set foot in the house. The mother--too depressed to talk about it--offers no word of explanation. The question of whether the father has been on the lam, in jail or in some secret branch of the military is teasingly left open. (According to the script of Spartan, the Val Kilmer character has two daughters, but Mamet didn't go there. Is this what a military man would be like when he was home--dummied up and so ominous that his family would know better than to ask questions about where he'd been?)

The father suggests a fishing trip for the boys, and they go with him to the countryside, in his battered red station wagon. Andrey, a more boisterous boy, is all for the trip. Ivan wants the fishing but is fuming with resentment against this strange man who seems to be just one more bully in this much-bullied boy's life. Is the father really interested in bonding with his sons or does he have an ulterior motive? He goes on a cryptic errands. It turns out that the destination--in a boat to a deserted island--is as much a business trip as it is a vacation. As the unreadable father, Konstantin Lavronenko gives a brilliant, enigmatic performance, and anyone who felt they never really understood their father will have to empathize with the two sons here. The tension between them is almost as strong as the tension between the father and his sons. Andrey admires the old man's toughness--even smiling at him, in hopes of approval, right after his father bloodies his nose. It's Ivan who finally rebels against his father's strictness, his brutal demands to be obeyed; and what begins as a kind of horror story becomes the purest form of tragedy. This is Zvyaginstev's debut film; his is a name that the world's film critics are going to need to learn to spell, because we certainly haven't heard the last of him.

'The Return' (Unrated; 105 min.), directed by Andrey Zvyaginstev, written by Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky, photographed by Mikhail Krichman and starring Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov and Konstantin Lavronenko, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose.

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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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