We here in the West oftentimes see Russia as a miserable place. It is the austere authoritarian other to our delightful democratic self, a home to alcoholism, gulag archipelagos, and notes from the underground. Even the (slightly) brighter stars turn into black holes: there is our Machoman-in-Chief Vladimir Putin, who, despite his flair, recalls a darker Soviet past. If you were to ask someone on the street about Russian film, you’d more likely hear “in Soviet Russia, movie watches you” than an actual recommendation. Therefore, it would be easy for us to treat Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2003 debut film The Return as “yet another depressing Russian story”—but to do so would be a massive shame, for it is so much more.
Yes, The Return is Russian, and it is not happy. Sure, we can view it as a portrait of the social desolation left in the Soviet Union’s wake. However, in his director’s statement, Zvyagintsev discourages viewers from exclusively framing the film as a social critique; instead, he describes it as “a mythological look on human life”. In isolation, such a description would seem presumptuous, but for The Return, it is quite accurate.
In some ways, the film can appear quite simple: it’s a story about two boys who embark on a fishing trip with their father. The details are anything but. Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and his younger brother Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) have not seen their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) in 12 years, and when he comes back unannounced and decides to take them fishing, the two have differing reactions. While Ivan tries to fill his hole of abandonment with defiance and hostility, Andrei attempts to seek their father’s approval and affection. The father himself is a mercurial figure, alternating between violent brutality and a desire to find a place in his boys’ hearts. Each character is flawed in his own exquisite way and, as the film progresses, we are left to think about just how much those flaws have been mended, if at all.
That is “human life”. Then comes the mythology, which Zvyaginstev weaves in with immaculate depth. Most overt are certain visual allusions. The Return is replete with Christian imagery; for instance, the only picture that Ivan and Andrei have of their father is sandwiched within their illustrated family Bible, fish serve as a recurring motif, and certain shots of the father evoke the image of Christ. In that regard, the father projects an aura of mystery—he makes mysterious phone calls, carries suspicious bundles, and altogether provides no answers for the many questions we end up having about who he really is and what he is supposed to represent.
Setting is also vital. The boys and father journey through beautifully stark wilderness. They drive through the taiga, boat across Lake Ladoga’s placid waters, and ultimate make what seems like a pilgrimage to a mysterious island. Russia’s unforgiving natural landscape plays along perfectly with cinematography and color; the film appears noticeably desaturated, and blue-green hues are oftentimes accentuated. Altogether, both what is on the screen, and how it is presented, create an ethereal air around the film’s narrative.
Suffice to say, The Return is highly analyzable. Just on visual components, film scholars could spend weeks picking everything apart. The narrative itself is a piece of literature, in the best sense of the term. There are many “returns”—repeated motifs, characters who seem to grow but actually don’t, and subtle musings of where life ends and begins. At the intersection of human life and mythology is philosophy, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this film has plenty of it.
With The Return, Zvyagintsev has crafted a piece of fine art. Its appeal may not be universal, but its themes are: it is not just another depressing Russian story, but rather everyone’s depressing story. It shows that sometimes in Contemporary Russia, movies watch you. They pierce into your soul, whether you like it or not.
The Return (Russian: Возвращение)—Russia. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. First released June 2003. Running time 1hr 48 min. Starring Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, and Konstantin Lavronenko.