The Return

Not of The Mack or The King, but of a top-notch minimalist Russian character drama.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 04 Jul 2004 by Scott Morris
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Vozvrashcheniye is a bit too much of a keyboardful for this scrivener to contend with, so we'll stick with its international title of The Return, if that's alright with you. And rather useful title it is too, as the story is simply summed up by the reaction two lads, Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) and elder brother Andrey (Vladimir Garin) to the return (see?) of their father, a man known only to them through vague memories and a tattered photograph. Papa (Konstantin Lavronenko), as he demands rather strictly to be known, takes his boys off on a trip for a few days of fishing holiday that is extended somewhat as they become embroiled in their father's mysterious business.

Narratively speaking, there's not a great deal more to this movie than the above, although this does the film a great disservice given how engaging and in some respects innovative a character piece it is. Told through the understandably shocked and conflicted reactions of the two lads, it's almost a subsection of a greater movie concerning itself with their father's trip to a remote island and a search for, well, something valuable enough for him to have hidden so well. The decision to have this tale impinge on the uneasy family dynamic that quickly forms in what amounts to almost tangential ways is certainly a brave one that may end up alienating a portion of the audience, but that's more a mark of how effective a device it is for pulling you along the gang's little road trip than a true flaw in the structure of the work.

It may be an annoyance for some, but in this case it's rather refreshing to see a director so sure of his intended focus that he can leave uncovered so sprawling a sub-plot that at times it threatens to dwarf the intended centre of attention, the hardly harmonious newly formed family unit. The way Papa reacts to events in the movie and the somewhat unusual methods he has of disciplining and raising his offspring hint at answers without providing any, and at the end of the movie we're left as in the dark about Papa's motives and past as Vanya and Andrey are. Fitting, given that we're viewing everything from their perspective.

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If there's any reason to be irritated by this film it's going to be from Vanya's bouts of sullen whining and occasional dunderheaded stubbornness, but even that's more a reflection on his age and inability to adequately express his conflicting feelings that even someone of a more advanced maturity would struggle with. Andrey is more accepting and immediately trusting of his father, which is actually the more puzzling reaction given the lack of respect their father shows for them. Quite why Papa reckons he can waltz back into their lives after his lengthy and unexplained absence demanding to be treated as a caring father is another of the questions left mysteriously to your speculation. At any rate, the lead characters provide a trifecta of powerful performances, the exuberance of Dobronravov and Garin balanced by a controlled and oddly captivating performance from Lavronenko.

In a story with no supporting characters Zvyagintsev has found a more than adequate substitute, the very land itself. In a country generally explored in no more detail than Moscow's minarets and barren snow covered expanses, it's a very pleasing thing indeed to see a wider view of the countryside the family drive through on their way to the Forested Island of Tragic Consequence, as I believe it's translated name goes. The expanses and vistas of Russia seem to express themselves in ways that the characters struggle to, dovetailing nicely with the slender narrative structure. This is a story told almost more in reaction shots and glances than by explicit speech, a gambit that could have been disastrous but turns out to be a minor triumph.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Return is the assurance with which Andrei Zvyagintsev has directed it, providing such a minimalist structure for his family drama to unfold in that would be a credit to someone with a few dozen flicks under their belt. That this is Zvyagintsev's feature debut, as far as I'm aware, is little short of astonishing. Any director with the temerity to ask an audience to (heaven forfend!) think about the layers of narrative in this age of spoon-fed mediocrity is taking a chance, but in this case it's one that's paid off in spades (A phrase I've never quite understood. Surely even gardeners can't have use for much more than one spade, unless they're Dr. Octopus?). At any rate, Andrei Zvyagintsev is a name I'll be looking out for in future and perhaps by the time his next opus reaches these fair shores I'll have some idea of how to pronounce it too.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Andrei Zvyagintsev
Cast list:
Vladimir Garin (Andrey)
Vanya Dobronravov (Ivan)
Konstantin Lavronenko (Father)
Natalya Vdovina (Mother)