The Return [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (12th July 2018).
The Film

I love when a film has a mysterious quality behind it, when it is more than a mere vehicle for entertainment purposes; I enjoy films that are filled with human foibles and quirks of character, however very few films come close to possessing the power of a well written short story by a masterful writer like Raymond Carver or Alice Munro. So it is with no expectations that I cracked open Kino Lorber’s latest feature, "The Return", only to be left visually impressed and hungry for more because this debut film from Director Andrey Zvyagintsev is exactly what I am often seeking and rarely finding.

The film starts with an underwater sequence as the camera glides over the ocean’s floor and slowly reveals the form of a sunken rowboat, foreshadowing future events to come. We see a rite of passage as several young boys are atop a towering structure above the water and dare each other to brave enough to jump into the water below; among the boys is a pair of brothers: teenage Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and younger Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov). The boys challenge each other to leap into the water and Ivan is clearly afraid and instead of being last, he is frozen with fear and ends up shivering and paralyzed until his mother (Natalya Vdovina) arrives and rescues him. The scene is tinted a gray color as if all bright colors have been bleached out of the landscape, and the color scheme fits the narrative because there is very little joy in this story. The use of water will be a central element in the film’s mise-en-scène and becomes a major symbol in several scenes that follow: rain, the ocean, and the harsh elements of nature, all play a role in the film’s overall effectiveness. The next day Ivan seeks out the other boys but ends up being called a coward and a swine; he angrily lashes out at his older larger oppressor until his big brother steps in and they run for home.

The film is set somewhere outside of Moscow and all the buildings are crumbling concrete edifices; everything is old and crumbling and neglected. The boys are dwarfed by the towering structures around them and their youthfulness only seems to be a hindrance. Upon arriving at home, their mother tells them to be quiet because their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) is inside sleeping. The two boys appear shocked upon hearing the news: apparently father has been away for the past twelve years and now has made his return. The boys peer into the bedroom where the father is asleep like a giant figure from a fairytale; who is this stranger and why has he suddenly come back? We are told nothing and the scene around the dinner table is strained as the boys and their mother and grandmother watch Dad tear apart a roasted chicken breast with his bare hands and divvies up the food; in what should be a cause for celebration, we can literally feel the emotional chill in the air as father assumes his rightful position as the head of the household. We immediately know that life is no longer going to be like it was previously.

The film uses an episodic opening told over a weeks’ time and this is similar to something that Stanley Kubrick used in his horror classic "The Shining" (1980); this signifies the passage of time, but also acts as a harbinger of trouble to come, as each day unfolds with greater tension and suspense. The next day, the boys are informed that father has decided to take the boys with him on a fishing trip to an undisclosed location. Again, what should be a happy event in the lives of the two boys becomes something much more grim and unforgettable. In the car, sides are drawn as Andrey sits up front in the passenger seat and acts as navigator, while Ivan sits in the back and sulks. The entire car trip is mostly silent, with father at the wheel and the boys alternatively being either friends with each other or being opposed to the other’s wishes. Early on Ivan expresses that he is hungry and his father sternly informs him that he will have to wait until they arrive at a town. At the restaurant, Ivan refuses to eat, displaying a stubborn streak that will ultimately cause him major trouble with his father. I began to ponder if the problem between the boy and his father was that each person was too alike and that only time and maturity will soften this relationship, but Ivan’s tenacity is clearly a part of his personality and he is controlled by his emotions. The father doesn’t use this time in the car to get any closer to the boys, nor does he display any real warmth; he is distant and self-absorbed, focused on an unstated goal. And while Andrey is clearly happy to have his father back in his life, Ivan is conflicted and untrustworthy of his father’s true intentions. Later that night while the boys are in their tent preparing for bed, Ivan tells Andrey that how can they be sure that this stranger is truly their father and not a murderer simply waiting to cut their throats while they sleep.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev masterfully displays a “less is more” approach by ratcheting up the tension with each passing day and by having the father acting as a strict disciplinarian. There is a moment when the boys are eating the fish that they caught while sitting around the campfire and Andrey notices that the father is not eating. He enquires as to why the father is not joining in the meal and Dad responds with a vague response about once having to eat too many fish once a long time ago; again, the father is unwilling to reveal the slightest amount of information about himself, as if doing so would reveal a terrible secret. We, as viewers, are left to fill in the spaces thus creating an even greater mystery about this stranger that calls himself papa.

The cinematography by Mikhail Krichman is fabulous with the trio often being situated outside in the elements repeatedly, alone and isolated, with no one else in view for the majority of the film. The sky is oppressive, often situated at the top of the frame, with large clouds filling the sky with an ominous dread. The scene where the father commands the two boys to row a rickety boat that they were forced to re-tar with sticks is almost bordering on sadistic and I was beginning to wonder just exactly what type of film was this turning into?

With a sparse plot and little bits of dialogue, silence is used to effectively emphasize the loneliness of all three characters. Nature is unconditionally seen as being a harsh taskmaster and when the three characters make their way to an isolated island, the film comes full circle with a scene ending atop a rickety fire tower, and with disaster sure to follow. Some viewers may dislike the open ending and the gaps in the father’s history, but it is these elements that intrigued and delighted me the most. Instead of a Hollywood plot by the numbers routine with predictable characters, we are presented with a mystery of sorts, that we must decide to pursue to solve or not. This is not an easy film but for viewers that are seeking something new and exciting, I recommend this very highly. Definitely a film that I will watch repeatedly!

Video

Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen mastered in HD 1080p 24/fps using AVC MPEG-4 compression. The visual elements of this production are notable and Kino’s edition of the film is excellent with the color palette being made up of various shades of grey, blue and greens. Since the great majority of the film takes place outdoors, the use of natural light in the majority of the scenes is commendable, with the light being of a cold nature instead of a warm source. The colors of the film help produce a quality of subdued sentimentality and the environment is sparse and almost alien in some scenes.

Audio

Kino supplies the choice of a Russian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix or an alternative Russian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo. All dialogue is clearly presented with removable English subtitles; the sound mix is subtle for the most part with some environmental sounds being mixed for the rear speakers. Andrey Dergachev's score is intense and combines a quasi-religious experience with the qualities of a Russian piece of folklore. The soundtrack is flawlessly mixed and only reinforces the uniqueness of the viewing experience.

Extras

Enclosed in the reverse-cover keep case is a slip with a download certificate redemption code for the movie's digital copy. The cover art is striking and subtly hints at the invocative experience shared by the two main characters.

A new interview with Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (12:42) is in Russian with English subtitles. The director talks about various cinematic influences and how they affected the film.

"The Return: A Film About the Film" (63:31) is a documentary by the director about the difficulties of making the film. Featuring interviews with the cast and crew members.

The original theatrical trailer for "The Return" is included (2:10).

Bonus trailers for other Russian titles in Kino's catalog:

- "The Banishment" (2:03)
- "Elena" (1:40)

Overall

"The Return" is a challenging film that is both a character study and a mystery of sorts. Filmmaking does not get any better than this and the casting of all the main characters was perfect. Winner of Best First Film Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2003. This is hands down easily one of the best films that I have had the pleasure of reviewing. On an added sad note is the fact that the young actor that portrayed Andrey fatally drown in the same lake that filming had occurred in a few months after the film was completed.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B+ Overall: A-

 


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