The Return

An elegant, moody Russian film from first-time director Andrei Zvyagintsev.



Taken separately, The Return could be viewed as a throwback to the long artistic lineage of Russian patriarchal conflict, a post-Communist reprise of the generational wars of novelists Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev. But viewed alongside other 2004 DVD releases such as The Mother and The Son, it seems part of something larger: an attempt, however unconscious, to assemble from a world fractured by conflicts a new synthesis, a broader image of family that embraces the ambiguity and pain of a more complicated era.


The Return is the story of two Russian boys, Andrei and Vanya, whose father, after a 12-year absence, suddenly reappears. Running home after a fight, they are stunned to see a man sleeping in their mother's bed. The only proof of his identity is an aged photograph hidden in the attic, which they immediately consult. The man is sullen and gruff, but their mother claims he's their father. What's more, he wants to take them fishing, a trip that will be steeped in mystery and hostility, and ultimately end in tragedy.


Combine the framing and photographic sense of existential materialist Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) and the meditative religious and philosophical concerns of fellow Russian Andrei Tarkovsky (My Name Is Ivan, Nostalghia) and you'd have someone like The Return director Andrei Zvyagintsev. Fittingly, considering how strange a union that is, The Return works both as a straightforward narrative and an allegory.


The Return is Zvyagintsev's debut film, and it's been highly praised, winning the Golden Lion as best picture at the 2003 Venice Film Festival and nominated as Best Foreign Language Film for the 2004 Golden Globes. It's easy to see why. Zvyagintsev has a very self-assured touch and the sort of visual acuity that critics love. The Return's look is crisp and elegant. Its settings, all strangely unpopulated and desolate, are colored in cold blues and grays (a sudden rain shower midway through the film is an obvious nod to Tarkovsky).


Those in search of plot, however, may come away disappointed. The Return's conclusion is unapologetically opaque, and throughout, Zvyagintsev is more intent on establishing mood than building suspense.


The one universal pleasure The Return does offer is superb acting. Vladimir Garin plays the elder Andrei, the more subservient of the brothers (tragically, Garin died in a drowning accident shortly after the film completed). But the real find here is Ivan Dobronravov, who plays Vanya. His defiant performance is wholly devoid of the precocity that inevitably seeps into the best child actor's work. If The Oscars were The Olgas, this kid would own one.


--Joshua Avram

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