AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
Fathers and Sons – To Sire with Love – Begetting a New Russian Cinema
by Harlan Kennedy
When the 2003 Venice Film Festival honoured Russia’s THE RETURN with the Golden Lion for Best Film, was it honouring the return of Russia itself?
To the cinematic fold? To the high ground of movie artistry?
There we were in the Sala Grande. Two hours of gnomic drama, mesmerising landscape and haunting emotion about two boys trying to bond with a cold, mysterious, seemingly tyrannical twelve-years-absent father. When cast and director were presented to the audience, that audience rose like a sea – or more aptly with this film, a vast and cloud-hung lake – whipped into the wave motion of applause by the winds of a passionate witnessing.
We thought we had seen a great film. We had.
The most minimal storyline in modern memory – the two brothers, the dad who comes back one unexplained day to bear them off on a week-long fishing trip, the lost filial love that struggles to return only to be beaten back by wariness, hurt and distance – climaxes in a series of lakeside scenes so majestically cryptic that what you ‘read’ is what you get. And by the time we reach these scenes, we seem to know intuitively the heartbeat inside every abstraction, the meaning inside every mystery.
Like most triumphs, this one came with a sacrifice. Director Andrei Zvyagintsev was there in Venice. So were two of the three main actors. But Vladimir Garin, who played the older brother, had died in a drowning accident eerily echoing the events of the movie.
But there are so many echoes in and around this film. Some we were ready for. What Russian director can avoid evoking Tarkovsky? Since Tarkovsky remapped Russia with his vision and artistic personality, how do you show the country without quoting or conjuring the work of its great artistic cartographer?
Then again, why is Russia today making so many movies about fathers and sons? Sokurov’s powerful FATHER AND SON. Khlebnikov and Popogrebsky’s acclaimed ROAD TO KOKTEBEL, which like THE RETURN is a journey movie about a father trying to win back his son’s trust. We know this theme’s pedigree in Russian culture and literature, from Gorki to Turgenev. But perhaps its re-emergence in modern Russian cinema is telling us something – about the struggle of an orphaned land, the ex-USSR, to find, to test, to trust, or strive to trust, new parents.
THE RETURN is the highest triumph to date of a new cinema that sent its old parent packing in the early 1990s. The return of democracy, combined with Boris Yeltsin’s economic reforms, killed off the state-controlled industry. A fatherless film culture struggled to survive for ten years. Then money followed success – state money mostly, but now without Soviet strings – as a new generation of filmmakers hit the international festival circuit, winning prizes and praises.
In 2000 there was $15m for 40-odd features. In 2002, $34m for 66 features. This year $50m has been earmarked for an even larger output. Meanwhile the country’s total box-office earnings rose from $112m to $190m between 2002 and 2003.
THE RETURN was filmed over two years at a cost of $400,000. Its success around the world persuaded Goskino, the Moscow-based state film body, to spend 25 percent of its budget exclusively on new directors. New directors may also get new creative freedoms, after the results provided by 38-year-old Zvyagintsev. The actor turned first-time feature director got away with behaviour worthy of David Lean. A patient producer, Dmitri Lesnevsky, who in an exception from Russia’s government-funding tendency committed his own roubles to the project, allowed Zvyagintsev to ignore all deadlines and budget limitations, actual or theoretical.
Wait for the right lowering sky? By all means. Find the perfect marathon rainstorm in which to drench your actors for days on end? Of course. “I felt like it was going to be a cinematic revelation,” Lesnevsky said. “So I never pushed him. I accepted all the expenses.”
That must be why THE RETURN, a story which for minutes on end seems to have no direction at all (in the narrative-compass not creative-control sense) has such a final, overpowering sense of purpose and even inevitability. Leave a work to grow at its own pace – a barely-known luxury for cinematic art outside of Lean, Kubrick or Cimino – and it will become organic, however massive or amorphous-seeming.
I keep remembering that aftermath at that Venice showing. How the clouds over the lake seemed to steal off the screen and hover, grey and large with tender menace, over the audience. How the movie’s heroic reticence wrapped us in a pall of wonder – had the characters really said so little (indeed almost nothing) to illuminate who they were and what had been their past lives? Yet how the fear with which love is instinct, the love of son for father or father for son, passionately communicated, had raised hairs on the back of our necks, which we were still trying to smooth down as we stood to applaud.
Has the heyday of early Soviet cinema finally sired a son? A son different but worthy: one washed in the struggle, pain and emptiness of intervening time-landscapes but, just like the sons in THE RETURN, surviving to find a shore where a father’s affirming shade consoles for a father’s irrevocable death.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.