The down side to writing DVD reviews is that you end up sitting through
a lot of mediocre films. Some are really bad, and those are easy
to write about, and a couple are really good, but most of them are just
"okay." Nothing really wrong with them, but nothing really good either.
If you sit through enough average movies, you start to forget how good
films can be. How they can transcend being mere entertainment and
become art. That's the state that I was in before I screened The
Return, and that is probably why it took me by surprise. I wasn't
expecting any movie to be as good as this one turned out to be, and it
simply astounded me. Kino has released this brilliantly profound Russian
movie on DVD, and it is one of the best DVD releases of the year.
Andrei and Ivan are brothers in their early teens. Like all siblings
they fight and argue. After one such fight the younger Ivan runs
home to tell his mother, followed by Andrei. As the pair burst into
their house complaining about the latest indignation, their mother tells
them to be quiet, there father is sleeping in the other room. This
simple declaration has the effect of a bomb going off. Their father
hasn't been seen in 12 years. After peering in on the sleeping stranger,
the children climb up to the attic where the single picture of their father
is kept in a trunk to confirm what their mother has said.
Dinner is a quiet, stilted affair, with not much chatter. Their
father tells the boys that the next morning he is going to take them fishing
for two days. That night the boys are a little apprehensive.
They'd like to get a chance to know their father, but they have so many
questions that aren't answered.
As they take off the next day the boys discover that their father is
not what they expected. He can be very gruff and oddly stern at times.
When a teenage thug steals the wallet that Andrei is holding, their father
tracks the thief down, drags him into an alley, and insists that the boys
beat him. When they refuse, the father gives the boy some money and
lets him run off.
After making a phone call, their father informs them that are not going
to go fishing. Instead he has to go someplace. It will take
him three or four days, and afterwards they can go fishing. So the
boys start off for an unknown destination with a man they don't know
for an undetermined amount of time. This raises a lot of questions
in their young minds: Is this guy their father? Why was he
gone for 12 years? Why did he come back? Why did he bother to take
them from their mother? What is he all about? Why does their
father barely talk to them, and never ask them about their lives.
This was a magnificent film. It can be viewed on several levels,
and all of them are interesting. As a straight "coming of age" film,
it works well. Both of the boys change in significant ways from the
interactions with their father and the events that they go through.
The mystery surrounding the returning dad adds to the appeal of the movie,
acting like a magnet, drawing the viewer in.
The movie is has a symbolic aspect to it, with religious references
and even analogies to Russia itself interspersed throughout the film.
You can look ast the film as the old Russia confronting the new Russia
after the fall of communism, or it could be a comment on faith. Or
it could be something entirely different, it all depends on the viewer.
The thing that really makes this movie stand out in my opinion is that
it makes you think. It is one of those films that you find yourself
thinking about long after you view it. There are many questions brought
up in the film, and not all of them are answered in a concrete unambiguous
manner. But if you think about the film, you start to come up with
theories and explanations for some of the unanswered questions. Things
can have multiple meanings in this film though, and even what the title
refers to is ambiguous. Even more food for thought.
This film was made by first time director Andrei Zvyagintsev, and I
can't think of a more auspicious start since Francois Truffaut's first
film The 400 Blows. Zvyagintsev is heavily influenced
by another Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. His frequent use of
water, holding shots for a long time, and use of religious symbolism are
all reminiscent of the late Russian director. And like Tarkovsky,
Zvyagintsev's films can be interpreted in different ways by different people.
But Zvyagintsev goes a step father than his predecessor by
making his films more assessable to the average viewer. While Stalker
and Solaris are both outstanding films, many people didn't understand
them and found them too obtuse to sit through. The Return
in contrast, can be viewed as a simple drama, though it is much more than
that under the surface.
Zvyagintsev put a lot of thought into all aspects of his film, and the
quality throughout is impressive. The musical score consists of haunting,
minimalistic music that both accents the drama and is responsible for a
lot of the movie's feel. The score is woven through the movie with
great skill, often very subtly in the background but rising at appropriate
moment to underline a dramatic moment. It never gets heavy handed
The cinematography was outstanding also. The story is filmed on
simple sets and locations, yet the way the movie is shot makes it delightful
to watch. Many of the shots are framed to look like still photographs.
Zvyagintsev is able to film ordinary objects and make them look interesting
as if they were works of art.
Zvyagintsev, as talented as he is, wouldn't have been able to pull this
off with out a talented team of actors. The entire cast did an outstanding
job. I was astounded at the performances of the two lead children.
Vladimir Garin (Andrei) and especially Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan) were able
to portray a wide range of emotions accurately without over-acting or seeming
like they were just reciting lines. The dialog was sparse in a lot
of scenes, and the film had to be carried by the actors. These young
talents did a magnificent job of nonverbally projecting their thoughts
The person who stole the show was Konstantin Lavronenko who played the
father. This was an exceedingly difficult role. His character
can be interpreted in many ways, and Konstantin was able to make the father
seem both menacing and loving at the same time. You are never
sure what his motivations are, and to play the character both believable
and mysteriously must have been a difficult task. Lavronenko makes
it look easy.
The stereo Russian soundtrack, with optional English subtitles, was
very good. It was actually much better than I was expecting.
There is a good range on the sound, though the low end is a little weak,
and the haunting score comes through marvelously. The music is often
very soft, but is faithfully reproduced and adds so much to the feel of
the film. The rustling of the leaves or the lapping of the waves
on the side of a boat are all subtle yet clear. There is no audio
distortion or other defects.
The anamorphic widescreen video image is very good. There is a
good amount of detail which is important for such a film. Most of
the characterization comes from the acting rather than the dialog, and
the subtle facial expressions come through wonderfully. The image
is a little subdued, which was probably the director's intention.
Digital defects are minimal, mainly a little aliasing in the background.
A very good looking movie.
In addition to three still galleries (including one the has the stills
from the end of the movie) and a trailer for the film, this DVD includes
a wonderful hour long documentary: The Return: A film About the Film.
This program features interviews with the director and most of the cast,
but it isn't the typical fluff piece that you find on many DVDs.
The director talks about his philosophy of film making and his theories
on drama. (He doesn't comment on his feelings about the plot of the
film though.) In addition to these interesting interviews, there
are a couple of deleted scenes, alternate takes and a lot of behind the
scenes footage. One of the best making of documentaries that I've
Every aspect of this film is just astounding. From the script,
to the acting, to the cinematography and the musical score, every part
of the movie was finely crafted and technically excellent. I was
awestruck watching the film, and was taken in by its elegant simplicity.
Kino, a firm that has a reputation for putting out excellent niche films
has really done a good job with this movie. The transfer is good,
and the sound excellent, and the bonus materials were great. One
of the best DVDs I've seen this year that I'm proud to put into the DVD
Talk Collector's Series.