Dir: Andrey Zvyagintsev. 2007. Russ. 150mins
The Banishment struggles to carry the burden of expectations surrounding the second feature from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev. Like his Venice Golden Lion winner The Return, it offers a tale of pride and patriarchy illuminating the dark soul of the Russian male. It confirms Zvyagintsev as a master of mood and composition but the ponderous pacing and epic running time make the film something of an endurance test.
Lacking the precision and intensity of The Return, it is further hampered by an obscurity in the storytelling that occasionally rivals the unfathomable Inland Empire. Sold as a prestige arthouse production, it may carve a modest profile but general audiences are likely to consider it too much of a challenge to suggest any mainstream potential.
The rural setting and tragic tale suggest something as earthy and epic as an Emile Zola novel or something as majestic as Greek tragedy. The actual inspiration for the film is a relatively unknown William Saroyan short story that has been considerably altered in the translation from page to screen.
The contrast between country and city remains. The urban landscapes are as empty and alienating as anything in Antonioni yet it is here that problems are resolved and difficulties made clear. The countryside is much more elemental.
It is here that Alex (Lavronenko) returns after 12 years. Accompanied by his wife Vera (Bonnevie) and their two children, he settles into an old family house. There are fires in the grate, walnut trees in the grounds and it is almost too idyllic to be true.
In any scary movie we would quickly expect the damp stain on the wall and the bedraggled poltergeists crawling along the ceiling. In Zvyagintsev's world, the ghosts of the past are the subject of hints and allegations rather than anything too explicit.
He seems to be a man with a history of violence, drawn from a family predisposed to fracture and heartache. We already know that his brother Mark (Baluev) no longer sees his children. The first scenes of the film have Alex removing a bullet from his brother's arm, no questions asked, no explanations required.
The great moral dilemma arrives for Alex when Vera informs him that she is pregnant and that the child is not his. He must decide what is to be done. His word is law and his instincts spark a chain of tragic consequences.
Perhaps aware of the old-fashioned melodrama in the material, Zvyagintsev has chosen to subvert it by imposing a stifling solemnity on the film. We feel every creaking bedspring and rustle of the leaves as events unfold.
The film even appears to reach a natural conclusion long before the end arrives. It is only late in the proceedings that the film regains its narrative grip with a series of revelations that lend some cohesion to what has gone before and allow us a completely different perspective on events as flashbacks provide us with Vera's side of the story.
Ravishing cinematography by Mikhail Krichman captures the countryside in blinding sunlight, misty mornings and heavy downpours that underline the more elemental nature of the events that unfold. The brooding, pulsing score by Andrey Dergachev and Arvo Part increases the likelihood of comparisons with the films of David Lynch.
All the performances are solid but the stand-out is Norwegian born, Ingmar Bergman veteran Maria Bonnevie who not only seems completely at ease acting in a foreign language but also makes Vera the most compelling and human figure in the film.
The camera scrutinises her in a way that Bergman once reserved for Liv Ullmann and she responds with a performance in which every glance and gesture reveals the plight of a woman whose life has been dominated by a society and a man who always believe they know best.
It is a potent contribution to a flawed film and might just have figured in the deliberations of the Cannes jury if they didn't already have the lead actress from Four Months , Anamaria Marinca, on their mind.
Based on The Laughing Matter by William Saroyan