THE RETURN, A Response
I think the essay marvelously thought out but I don’t know if it helps one understand the powerful channels of emotion or interest that lay beneath the surface of THE RETURN.
I think you’re correct about ambiguity and enigma being inbred in all the Soviet arts, suggesting symbolism and implication was the only tool to rebel against the system. But a visual epic poetry is also central to even the most popular Soviet films. Think of the astonishing shot of the oak tree in War and Peace, seeming to go on forever, to extraordinary dialogue about time and eternity!
THE RETURN’S surface simplicity is striking, because it takes the form of a folk-fairy tale, and its subject matter, as you noted, is the same…the trials boys must go through to become a strong adult.
The symbolism is wrapped in Russian folklore—the mythic power of nature to consume the conscious and rational, and the fairy tale archetype of the abandoned child, moving into adulthood by learning his skills and worth. But one also notices the deep religious motifs—the returned father laid out like Christ on the bed (like the Mantegna painting), and the supper, so formal and silent, with once again, the father, like Christ at the last supper, dividing the loaves, except now in its modern Russian incarnation—disgusting chicken, in an ordered mound of peeled potatoes.
One remembers the simple bookends of the film… the two phallic male towers, both representing test and challenge (the opening dive) and enlightenment (the boy who views a wider world, the ocean) and ultimate doom (the death)… but in the end, the boy must climb down the tower by himself. He rids himself of his fear of heights because of something larger and more important.
The power of the film for me comes from its ability to excite my curiosity by constantly defeating my expectations, and by stimulating my imagination, only to have my expectations redirected. For example, while watching the film the father was a complete cipher to me—an enigma who grew more complex with each puzzling action.
Why did he return? The proposed outing for the boys’ pleasure quickly shifts to a purposeful journey for the father’s mysterious needs. Yet, because we are placed in the position of the sons (you described it wonderfully)… it’s their emotional needs that are so magnetic, which divert our attention from the father—a man with fixed Russian values of retaliation and revenge, and with a deep urge to teach responsibility and reliance. What he is given is an angry, suspicious, pig-headed son… fierce in his strong will and stubbornness. (The old Russia?).
What’s so fascinating is how these perceptions shift—for example, the scene in the car, with the son screaming invective at him. He takes it with serenity, (guilt, understanding?) In the scene at the dock the father can easily be taken for one of the new Russian Mafia, (mystifying deals with strangers) and he almost qualifies in carrying away a packet resembling a dead corpse (which turns out to be the motor for the boat). A scene in the restaurant with rather cliché discipline (eat your food!) ends not with an act of punishment, but with ignoring the child and his actions.
The scene the boys have with the thugs (the only off-tone unconvincing scene in the film for me) is followed by a possible retaliation. Instead of beating the thug up, the father gives him money for food. He abandons his son to give him time to think at the bridge, even in a rainstorm. (What does the truck passing by mean—huge and ominous?) And when he forces his sons to row the boat it seems callous at first, but you slowly realize they are learning a resilience, perseverance and the ability to accomplish a difficult task they never dreamed they had in them.
And the last lesson with the watch… one of consideration—hold to your word, learn to be responsible… is met with a gesture of violence (not serious), basically to impart a lesson. (I suppose the only way the father knows how to impart it).
What is the father running after his angry, hysterical son for? To finally embrace him and ask forgiveness? Trying to save him from an act of self-destruction?
And then there’s the corpse—a perfect symbol of the absent father, the memory of him always present. Final libations of a classic world? A bleaker, more stoic version of Antigone? And what about the endless roads in the film, each with a different character and setting?
THE RETURN is definitely enigmatic, but it’s a film so filled with nuance, beauty, and deeply felt emotion—not from the actions or story, but rather from the tone, mood, compositions, movement and the dark, haunting mystery of the subject matter. Is its theme not the mysteries that lie under the surface of simple, supposedly understandable actions? We look for meaning in what people do and how they act, but is there not greater meaning in the huge, encompassing spaces of nature that reflect and shade what people do and how they act because they reflect history and what is eternal? That seems for me closer to the aims of this film. It follows the footsteps of all great Russian poetic cinema.
Closer to the surface these strange, enigmatic rituals that make up the simple action of the film seem to reflect the problems that so many fathers everywhere have with their rebellious, impossible sons. I’ve seen students like the boy: self-destructive, living in a private world of paranoia, suspicion and resentment.
And all that water! (One more eternal, all encompassing symbol) The silhouettes, (the darkness of the soul?) where loneliness, desertion, and signs of vital life stir. The extraordinary image of the boy fishing alone, as if on the bow of a ship and the proud, understanding look of the father, even though the son has been so difficult. The last breathtaking moment of out of focus reeds, moving into the stillness of two boys silhouettes keeping watch over their dead father. Yes, the stuff of great folk tales.
And I hope you caught the film’s cinematic references. The father asleep with the little pieces of down floating across the pillow (a homage to the feathers in Andrei Rublev); the boys photo in the car (a homage to the opening ride in Blue of Kieslowski), the finding of the bird (Andrei Rublev); the boys play in the abandoned warehouse (Dekalogue); the mother’s stoic resignation; (the Mirror of Tarkovsky); the boat and the sinking; (the pagan scene in Rublev); the forest run, where the sunlight comes out of the clouds ( Sukurov’s Mother and Son); the two running scenes; (Jules and Jim). I’m sure a second or third viewing will show tons of others. And what about the bowl of soup? (right out of a painting by Caravaggio).
You are right, there is nothing that is pretty in the film, but there is not a landscape that is not emotionally deep and breathtakingly beautiful.
And landscapes with cloud swept skies abound.