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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 or overbearing.
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 and feelings.
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 seen.
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.