The longer time you’ve spent away from Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return, the deeper you sink into the film’s haunting mysteries.
Zvyagintsev’s 2003 film takes place over the course of a single week, and explores the the reuniting of two young sons with their estranged father as the three embark on a vacation turned cryptic road trip. The youngest son Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) is the most skeptical of this new paternal figure, while teenaged Andrey (Vladimir Garin) idealizes his father (Konstantin Lavronenko).
The film opens with the brothers amongst a group of boys as they compel each other to jump from a tower into a deep blue ocean below. Ivan, or “Shorty” as the boys call him, is too afraid to plunge into the water, and is left uptop the tower for hours until his mother comes to save him. This character of a young boy on the cusp of teenagehood struggling to fit the mold of masculinity is clearly carved out by this scene and further solidified throughout the film with his outbursts towards his classical macho father. In his debut performance, Dobronravov showcases both the fragile heart and intuitive intelligence of children. His co-stars stand strong as well, with particular success seen in Lavronenko performance as the father, who constantly keeps the audiences wondering his true intentions.
The audience takes the perspective of sensitive yet stubborn Ivan as he attempts to resolve the mystery of who his father truly is. We first see the father after the children are shocked to hear the news of his return after 15 years away. They peer into his bedroom to find his sleeping body draped in cloth. The shot’s foreshortened perspective calls back to Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting of the Lamentation of Christ. This violent perspective and referencing presents the father as an otherworldly being that, even as he returns, seems to already be dead.
The art direction and cinematography are stunning throughout The Return, both having a strong cohesion to each other. The framing often focuses on landscapes as it engulfs the brothers. Subtle camera movements and blocking often reveal the characters surrounding by broad scenery such as endless oceans, seemingly infinite fields, and never ending roads. Similarly, the art direction often emphasis the loneliness of the characters while simultaneously representing the unsaid emotions of different characters. In terms of costuming, the father is often seen in a deep maroon through either his clothing or vehicle, will the boys are often seen in faded blues or greys. In a pivotal moment where Ivan declares his disdain for his father and decides to no longer tolerate their questionable actions, Ivan is seen surrounded by similar maroon coloured flower-patterned bedding. This cohesion continues till the final scene, and as the film skirts around revealing its mysteries narratively, its through both the cinematography and art direction that the true pay off is felt by the audience.
As his debut feature, Zvyagintsev absolutely deserves the praise and accolades it received during its initial release. The Return is an absolutely devastating rendition of childhood trauma and the isolation young boys can experience from rigid imaginings of masculinity.