A haunting mix of fable and psychodrama, Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyaginstev's acclaimed debut feels like the retelling of an ancient myth. Visually striking, thematically bleak and constructed according to a strange logic all its own, it confirmed Zvyaginstev as a worthy successor to Tarkovsky.
Sparse in dialogue and devoid of exposition, the absences and allusions to unexplained events make The Return as compelling as the most efficient thriller. But Zvyaginstev brings to this skeletal tale an emotional and psychological complexity that's lingering, subtle and immensely powerful.
The story centres on adolescent brothers Andrey (Garin) and Ivan (Dobronravov). One day, their father (Lavronenko), who has been mysteriously absent for the past 12 years, turns up, unannounced and unwelcome. Where he's been, or why, is never made clear, though the boys' mother immediately submits to his authority. Over an awkward dinner, he announces his intention: he's going to take the boys on a trip from which they will return - if they return - as men.
What follows is a prolonged journey, inwards and outwards, as father and sons drive though rural Russia towards an isolated lake. There they set off in a battered boat for an uninhabited island where father searches for a buried box, the contents of which are unspecified.
For the boys it's a difficult experience. Almost supernaturally competent in the business of survival, father (he's never named) is a harsh disciplinarian and a rugged individualist. Inscrutable, morally ambivalent, he's determined that the boys should learn to fend for themselves. With Ivan he establishes a tentative bond but Andrey is full of suspicion. Finally, on the island, disaster strikes and the boys undergo a harrowing rite-of-passage.
The Return is mystical in the broadest sense. The plot and characters draw on mythological archetypes and religious tropes. Sometimes these are explicit: rowing across the foggy lake, silent and hooded, father resembles Charon, ferrying the boys into Hades. Elsewhere the film explores difficult issues surrounding maleness and authority, father and Andrey conducting a war of attrition as they fight for a place at the top of the pole.
Looming ominously over all this is the enigmatic presence of father himself, a man about whom almost nothing is revealed. But the absences aren't merely in the characters and the story, fascinating though these are. Throughout the film Zvyaginstev revisits certain images and subtly re-invests them with new meaning. He also has a knack of avoiding what might ordinarily be the focus of a scene and concentrating instead on his characters' reactions to it. It's a technique that purposefully distances the audience and, combined with the muted cinematography and empty landscapes, the result is a sense of spreading dread.
Having been so sparing with background information, the final sequence is startlingly intimate: a series of beautifully shot black and white photographs taken by Ivan during the course of the trip. It brings the boys' journey, and their hauling into adulthood, into sudden and sharp relief. Yet with a single, devastating exception the most important figure here - their father - is as absent as he ever was.