Andrey Zvyagintsev's astonishing debut The Return (2003) was a bare-bones mystery-thriller whose characters were elevated to the realm of archetypes. After a five year wait, his second feature The Banishment pulls off a similar trick, once again starring Konstantin Lavronenko as an errant father in what might be regarded as the return of The Return.
Certainly the sequence that begins The Banishment, in which Mark (Baluev) speeds from the country to an anonymous industrialised city to get a bullet removed from his arm by his brother Alex (Lavronenko), is suggestive of a conventional thriller - but the opening wideshot image of a large, lone tree in a field points to a broader frame of reference.
Under the shadow of that solitary tree of life and knowledge, Alex and his wife Vera (Bonnevie) will find themselves re-enacting the Fall of Man, as a moral error made by Alex will lead to the irreversible banishment of his family from the Eden that they have made together. And in case the allusion to Genesis is missed, Zvyagintsev decorates the country house which is the film's principal setting with pictures of Adam and Eve, and even inserts a scene early on where Alex's young daughter Eva (Kulkina) is offered - and rejects - an apple.
The story in The Banishment is deceptively simple and unfolds at a languorous pace that might test the patience were it not for the breathtaking beauty of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman's every immaculately framed shot.
When Alex gets unspecified work in the country, he moves back into his late father's house with Vera and their children Eva and Kir (Shibaev). That night, Vera announces to her husband: "I'm expecting a child. It's not yours." Alex refuses even to hear Vera's faltering attempts to explain herself, and over the next few days, he struggles to contain his anger and to come to the 'right' decision over what needs to be done. Eventually, he turns to Mark for help - and then everything goes tragically wrong, as a dizzyingly rapid series of catastrophes is accompanied by revelations of how little Alex (or indeed the viewer) has understood of Vera's strange predicament.
Much of The Banishment takes place either within the shadows of the country house, or in the half light of dusk - and if it turns out that Alex has been blundering about for answers in the dark, then his blindness, both intellectual and moral, is reflected in the games of his children.
First they play hide and seek in the wood, and then they are shown painstakingly piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of Da Vinci's 'The Annunciation' (in which, significantly, an angel informs the innocent Mary of her conception). Indeed the film itself, like this jigsaw, conceals a bigger picture that emerges only gradually to reward those with staying power. The dialogue may be sparse, the action infrequent, but here everything shimmers, at least retrospectively, with hidden resonances. The film's final images shift the story's already vague particularities to a purely symbolic level of eternal return.
Adapted from William Saroyan's 1953 novella 'The Laughing Matter', Zvyagintsev's film is a timeless tragedy about the failure of love and the loss of paradise. The narrative's many abstractions and ellipses are anchored by the naturalism of the performances. The film is an absolute visual treat: amongst its aesthetic highlights are some cuts so mesmerisingly fluid that it takes a moment to realise that the action has shifted in both space and time, and a long tracking shot over a rivulet of water that evokes a similar sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), without in any way paling in comparison to Russia's grand master of cinema.