The basic premise of this arthouse hit sounds pretty dreary: an estranged father (Vladimir Garin) returns home and tries to patch up his relationship with his two young sons. Whilst one boy is forgiving, his younger brother isn't. The father decides to take the boys away on a fishing trip in an attempt to win them over. However, the reality is far better than any synopsis can ever hope to capture.
Zvyagintsev's captivating film succeeds not only in presenting totally believable and realistic characters (all superbly realised by a terrific ensemble cast) but putting them into a situation that, over a period of one week, seems more and more sinister as it progresses. Yet the single most impressive aspect to The Return is the atmosphere it creates. This is largely achieved by what the script chooses to leave out rather than any heavy handed directorial flourishes. But it is thanks to Zvyagintsev's rock solid directing that this emerges as one of the most impacting Russian films for many years.
Not afraid to assert his authority on his submissive family, the aggressive father is as mysterious to the viewer as he is to his youngest son Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov). Once on the road and away from their depressing tenement home, its gradually becomes clear that the fishing trip is a pretext for using the boys as cover for something their father is keen to keep a quiet as possible. Travelling across country in the battered family car, he keeps stopping to make calls from public telephones. He is seen talking to men in isolated towns. He arranges for a boat to be left by the coast so they can get to an island where the journey culminates in more mystery and a dramatic conclusion.
It feels as though writers Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky have fully developed the back story to the events we get to see on screen, but then deliberately stripped out all the clues. The fascinating result will infuriate those who like explanations and clear reasoning, but delight those who enjoy putting the pieces together long after they've left the cinema. One of the films of the year without a doubt. (Eerie trivia: Actor Vladimir Garin drowned shortly after filming was completed - in the lake that appears in the film's climax). 8/10
Rob Dyer (October 2004)
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