The Return

The Return (Возвращени)
Made in: Russia
Language: Russian
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Konstantin Lavronenko, Ivan Dobronravov, Vladimir Garin, Nataliya Vdovina, Galina Popova
Year: 2003

Synopsis: Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and his older brother Andrei (Vladimir Garin) are two teenage boys who live with their mother (Nataliya Vdovina) and grandmother (Galina Popova). Growing up without their father, the two have come to depend on each other.

But one day, after a twelve year absence, their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) comes back unannounced. Andrei is happy, and is eager to start bonding. Younger Ivan, on the other hand, has a more icy reaction to the homecoming.

Their father takes them on a road trip north for a week of fishing, camping, and other outdoor activities. We learn that he's a hard-ass, not terribly emotional, and often difficult to read. Furthermore, there's the hint of a criminal history. The tension between him and Ivan slowly escalates into a test of wills, with Andrei caught in between.

Is the boys' father just a deadbeat prick out to make life even more difficult for his sons?

Or is he, in his own strange way, trying to do right in the only way he knows how? The situation reaches a terrible climax when the three arrive at a small, deserted island.

Remarks: A powerful narrative, superb actors, and a stark, realistic feel makes The Return a clear, effective story. 

It's a very in-depth study on human complexity and frailty, and overall I found it more compelling and believable than Zvyagintsev's 2011 film, Elena. As in Elena, Zvyagintsev mainly drops hints about some of the key points of the characters' past. 

His deliberate use of ambiguity was, for me, a near-infuriating exercise in frustration while watching Elena

But in The Return, the tactic actually adds rich psychological textures to the characters. All exhibit courage and cowardice at important moments, which defines much of the conflict within their relationship.

Although the film does end on a highly depressing note, the story does come full circle and Zvyagintsev seems to make a clear decision about what the connection between Ivan, Andrei and their father is supposed to mean.

Who would like this film: Although The Return contains universal themes and isn't boring, I think it's geared more towards those who are experienced with foreign movies and art films. It's very good, but definitely a downer.
The "irresponsible" father angle is something we've seen in many Spielberg movies, but Zvyagintsev, emotionally, takes us to places where studio execs would never let Spielberg go in a million years.

And while made on a shoestring budget (rumored to be less than $500,000), the film was shot in northwestern Russia (at Lake Ladoga) and the Gulf of Finland. The cinematography is gorgeous in many scenes, with the natural beauty of the locations nearly matching the production value of any big studio film.

(3 and 1/2 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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