Dir. Andrei Zvygatinsev. Russia, 2003. 105 min.
This intimate, almost metaphysical study of rebellion against parental authority does everything a Hollywood picture doesn't. Not only because it is refreshing to see, for a change, that adolescence does not relate only to sexual glands, but also because it takes a considerable risk leaving, on purpose, much of what would be taken as essential information unsaid - and if that isn't enough, refusing to deliver a complaisant ending for the cathartic satisfaction of the audiences. Art houses will love this remarkably controlled debut, the triumphal reception in Venice indicates festivals will be queuing for it, and art houses will pick it as one of the year's favourites.
Ivan (Dobronravov) and his older brother Andrei (Galin), both in their early teens, come home one Sunday evening to find that their father (Lavronenko), who has been away for the last 12 years, is suddenly back. His car is parked in front of the house - he is asleep in the bedroom and the kids have to dig up an old photo to make sure this is indeed their dad. No reason is given for his absence, his whereabouts and occupation during all that period of time, none for his departure and for his return. Nor are they going to learn anything more in the course of the film. The next day, he packs them up in his car, with their fishing gear, and all three leave on a hike that will take the rest of the film. All through it, Andrei, the oldest, will submit to his father's wishes as best as he can, but Ivan, more stubborn and imaginative, will constantly question, rebel, doubt, and fear the man who for him is pretty much of a stranger.
As the trip takes them out first to what appears to be an almost vacant city, then to the wide wilderness of the woods by the sea and then a deserted island, the tension between Ivan and his father is intensified with Andrei helplessly trying to mediate, though wary himself of this figure whose presence he both cherishes and suspects. There isn't much more in the film, but the way it is shot, the solitude of the characters inside the landscape they move in, the grey metallic light which bathes the entire scenery, a Nordic feeling of cold - though there is at no point any indication of the exact location where the story is taking place - all these generate a disquieting sense of discomfort which tells the audience that things are not as normal as they appear to be.
While the tale could be taken at its face value - a man coming back to his family after a long absence and attempting to assume authority over his children who have adapted to life without him - the intentional lack of details indicates the film aspires to loftier goals. The father's conduct is always just what one would expect a legitimate caring parent to be, including the determination to protect his children from things they are not supposed to be exposed to, and a touch of mystery, which is always associated by children to the life of grown-ups. And yet, there is something sinister about this mystery, enhanced even more by his unexplained absence.
Told through the eyes of the two kids who are keeping a diary, the film itself is divided into daily entries, starting on one Sunday and finishing on the next - as long as the story takes. Perspicacious viewers will no doubt note a few shots that digress from this strict discipline - the p.o.v. unnecessarily changed, also at certain points, the enthusiasm of a first-time director comes through in a choice of camera angles that are just that little bit too fanciful. But it is a small price to pay in exchange for Zvygatinsev's spare, rigorous visual conception and his exemplary work with the two young boys and the father, constantly on screen and riveting to watch working together. Dobronravov's anguished defiance is quite amazing even if intuitive, given his young age, with Galin and Lavronenko equally effective. Kritchman's cinematography achieves a remarkable unity of style, his choices of light and framing almost but never entirely realistic, and the script is cleverly ambivalent, not only to contain sufficient elements for a socio-political parable as well, but also to suggest that all this is the figment of a child's imagination.
Prod co: Ren Film
Prod: Dimitri Lesnevsky
Exec prod: Elena Kovaleva
Int'l Sales: Intercinema Art Agency
Scr: Vladimir Moiseenko, Alexander Novotsky
Cinematography: Mikhail Kritschman
Ed: Vladimir Mogilevsky
Prod des: Janna Pakhomova
Costumes: Anna Barthuly
Make-up: Galia Ponomareva
Music: Andrei Dergetchev
Sound: Andrei Khudyakov
Main cast: Konstantin Lavronenko (father), Vladimir Garin (Andrei), Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan), Natalia Volovina (mother)