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Review: ‘Firebird’ captures a thrilling military romance, Soviet-style

Two men in Soviet military uniforms sit in a theater in a scene from the movie “Firebird.”
Tom Prior, left, and Oleg Zagorodnii in the movie “Firebird.”
(Herrki-Erich Merila / Roadside Attractions / The Factory)

Director Peeter Rebane and his co-writer (and star), Tom Prior (they also produced), have created a compelling, tender, tragic, occasionally melodramatic look at forbidden love and desire in “Firebird,” based on the memoir of Russian actor Sergey Fetisov, who died in 2017 at age 64.

Set in Soviet-occupied Estonia during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, this absorbing romantic drama is an all-too-timely reminder of the fight that LGBTQ+ people still face around the world, from autocratic Russia to democratic America. (Due to its queer content, the film was met with protests and obstruction when it played the 2021 Moscow International Film Festival.)

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A kind of Cold War-era “Brokeback Mountain” (with a dash of “Top Gun”), the movie tracks the affair that sparks between Sergey Serebrennikov (Prior), a young airman, arts aficionado and photography buff, and Roman Matvejev (Oleg Zagorodnii), a dashing, slightly older fighter pilot new to the military base.

Obstacles abound, of course, for the passionate pair, not the least of which is the existence of Article 121, a Soviet criminal statute that deems male homosexuality illegal. (The law, with its maximum five-year prison sentence, was repealed in 1993). Add in a sneaky, eagle-eyed KGB officer (Margus Prangel) out to expose all “suspicious” behavior on the base and, later, an anonymous tip about Roman’s alleged canoodling with an unidentified private, and the screws tighten. The pressure eventually overwhelms career-soldier Roman, and he’s forced to end his relationship with a heartbroken Sergey, who’s coming to the end of his military service.

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Through all this, there’s also Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), the warm and capable secretary to the base’s equitable commander (Nicholas Woodeson). Luisa has eyes for her friend and co-worker Sergey, until Roman shows up, and she can’t help but be drawn to the charismatic, startlingly attractive newcomer. But is he as enchanted by her? Can you say love triangle?

The film jumps to a year later when Sergey is living in Moscow and attending drama school. The dichotomy between the rigid, paranoia-filled life on the air force base (yikes, that drill sergeant!) and the freedom and whimsey of Sergey’s happy new creative environment couldn’t be more palpable. Still, Sergey pines for Roman, who has remained on the base and, as a matter of survival — militarily, societally — taken up with Luisa. Which isn’t to say that Roman has forgotten about Sergey. At all.

To reveal much more about the plot, which advances an additional four years, would spoil its sometimes predictable but generally captivating twists and turns. It’s a deeply felt tale made more so by the inherently dicey, if not impossible, nature of Sergey and Roman’s love.

Speaking of which, their romance gets enough of an on-screen workout to feel sexy and authentic, though the characters seem to take a few too many lust-over-logic risks (even for a slightly soapy film like this). For all his military circumspection, Roman can seem especially reckless in his desire for Sergey, which, narratively, sometimes comes off more as a way to ratchet up the tension or add jeopardy to an already charged situation. (You may find yourself shouting at the screen, horror movie-style: “Lock the door!” “Move away from the window!” “Don’t take that photo!”)

Although this is an intimate story at heart, Rebane and his team have done a solid job crafting the film’s more sweeping backdrop, effectively re-creating time and place while shooting in eastern Estonia, Moscow and Malta. It’s also lovingly lighted and shot by Mait Mäekivi, who evocatively captures the movie’s frequent, thematic use of water. (Among other things, Sergey is haunted by a childhood friend’s apparent drowning death.)

A soulful, endearingly eager Prior and the Jon Hamm-some Zagoradnii make an alluring pair of lovers, with Pozharskaya also proving an appealing presence. Accent work is mostly proficient, with the British Prior (“The Theory of Everything,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) largely selling his Russian-inflected speech and the rest of the cast (including a mix of Ukrainian, Russian and Estonian actors) ably managing the all-English dialogue. (Rebane has said that he wanted the film, despite its setting, to be in English to reach the widest global audience.)

As for the title, it refers to the magical ballet by Igor Stravinsky, bits of which are glimpsed twice here, initially as a preamble to Sergey and Roman’s first kiss. Romantic indeed.

‘Firebird’

Rated: R, for language and some sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: Starts April 29, AMC Century City 15; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino


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