Shot in the cool, somber tones of northern latitudes, “The Return,” a remarkably self-assured first film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, tells the story of two boys, Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) and Andrey (Vladimir Garin), and the abrupt reappearance of a father they hardly know.
One day the father arrives at their house, begins sleeping in their mother’s bed and sitting at their dining table -- a laconic stranger demanding immediate respect. To knit their bonds, the father takes the boys on a camping trip. That there are problems with the nascent relationship is not surprising, though the storytelling is, from the battle of wills with Vanya, the moody, younger son to the mysteries that continue to shadow the father. Where has he spent the last decade? Who is he phoning? Why is he unearthing a box and what is held inside? These the director likes leaving unexplained.
A wiry, intense man with oversized glasses, Zvyagintsev, 40, speaks through a translator during a recent visit to Los Angeles for the Golden Globes, where the film was nominated but lost to Afghanistan’s foreign-language contender, “Osama.” “The Return,” which opened in Los Angeles on Friday, did take home a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Zvyagintsev, who trained as an actor at the Moscow State Theater School, chose to work independently rather than to join a theater company, a more typical career route in Russia. However, stage work was sporadic, so to supplement his income he started acting in and directing television commercials about 10 years ago.
The transition from shooting commercials to making his own feature film has been “a long road,” he says, but he found a sympathetic ally in Dmitry Lesnevsky, head of BEN TV, Russia’s first independent television station, and producer of the film. They read through piles of scripts until they found something they both liked.
Zvyagintsev isn’t comfortable talking about what attracted him to the script. He believes that in discussing the themes of the story he will influence the audience.
After awhile he finally says, “The script had energy and depth which can convey religious outlook or feeling which I had in myself.”
There were other compelling issues, he says, such as the growing apart of modern families and problems between children and their fathers, but “they were secondary to the very deep religious feeling.” When asked to elaborate, he says, “I don’t talk about any particular religion, I talk about religious feeling.”
As to whether competition between fathers and sons, a strong current in the film, is inevitable, Zvyagintsev offers: “It’s difficult for me to judge because I didn’t have a father, I was brought up by my mother.” Then he adds, “It’s probably always like that” and cites Nordic lore in which when a son grows up he has to kill his father and put his body on a boat.
“Civilization changes relationships,” he says. “We don’t have to kill our fathers, but the blood tells us that the son will take the place of father.”
For the pivotal roles of the boys, he searched for six months in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “I was looking and looking for something I didn’t even know,” he says.
He eventually went back to boys he had met earlier, Garin and Dobronravov. “Later I understood why I chose them,” he says. “These children had the character of grown-up people, they had very developed characters.” Dobronravov was 12 and Garin was 14 when the director met them; they were a year older when shooting started.
They had rehearsals and Zvyagintsev showed them the classic Russian film “Andrei Rublev” by Andrei Tarkovsky, pointing out how naturally a character could be played. “I was very much afraid something would seem false,” the director says. His fears were unfounded as the boys “somehow understood how they should act, how to be very natural.” (Garin drowned not long after the film was finished.)
For Konstantin Lavronenko, the actor who plays the father, working with Zvyagintsev was like working with a skillful conductor, orchestrating all the components of the movie. “He allowed me and the children to breathe and feel the situation and improvise.” Having been an actor probably helped, the director says. “I know the acting nature very well myself, I see the roots of why someone might feel awkward, and I can help them.”
While the film has interiors, most of it was shot on location, in towns and roads and forests outside St. Petersburg, some of it along the Gulf of Finland. They shot for 50 days, 40 of which were overcast, which turned out to be a boon. “We were very lucky with the lighting,” he says. He and cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman had already talked about bleaching the film to subtract color from the print, but the soft natural lighting contributed to the “cold” look he wanted.
“I wanted to avoid being too realistic,” Zvyagintsev says. “The film should somehow move people to a more abstract level.” The most important lesson he learned from making the film was “to trust yourself,” he says. “Even if everyone else disagrees, you have to follow your own instincts.” In fact, in the original script, the box was opened and Zvyagintsev’s friends and loved ones all thought it should be. However, the director held firm and insisted the contents should remain a secret.
This withholding has turned out to have a galvanizing effect on critics and audiences who have seen the film. “If you listen too much to other people, you start doubting yourself,” he says. “Everyone has their own world, and you have to believe in your own world, in what you want to say.”
Even if you can’t exactly say it out loud.
Freelance writer Scarlet Cheng can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.