Those viewing Russia as a bleak, disconsolate land will not be persuaded otherwise by “The Return,” a bleak, disconsolate film that is nonetheless intriguing and effortlessly watchable.
It was made by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a Russian TV director making his first feature film. Unlike many new-comers, Zvyagintsev knows exactly what he wants, and “The Return” shows a steady confidence that is often lacking in new filmmakers.
Its protagonists are two boys, Andrey (Vladimir Garin), who is an early teenager, and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), called Vanya, a few years behind him. They live in a depressed wayside town with their mother (Natalya Vdovina), and are surprised to learn one day that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) has returned after a 12-year absence. Andrey barely remembers him; Vanya, not at all. They have to consult old photographs to confirm it’s actually him.
Vanya, more skeptical and unforgiving than his brother, wants to know where Dad has been, where he has come from. His brother and mother both tell him, “He just came,” as if it doesn’t matter from where. If they are curious to know the details, they do not show it. Only Vanya is suspicious and mistrusting of the man who is his father but who has not shown it for the past decade.
Immediately, Father wants to take the boys on a fishing trip, which soon reveals itself to have alternative motives in the form of some shady task he must perform. His treatment of the boys is stern and odd — not entirely without love, but almost. He insists that Vanya (whom he always calls “Ivan,” except at one key moment) call him “Dad,” becoming angry when he refuses.
Since the film is almost exclusively through the eyes of the boys — and usually Vanya specifically — we don’t learn exactly what their father is up to, nor are all the questions about his disappearance, reappearance and attitude answered. Instead we find parallels between Zvyagintsev’s story (written by Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky) and the Bible, notably the story of Abraham and Isaac. Characters seem archetypical: The first time we see Father, he is asleep in bed, his beard, the lighting and the situation reminiscent of Jesus awaking from the tomb on the third day.
What all of the symbolism means — and indeed, how much is really there, and how much is meant literally — is up to the viewer to determine. It’s a compelling movie, albeit a dark, gray one.
B+ (1 hr., 46 min.; Russian with subtitles; )