The official entry from Russia for best foreign-language film, The Return is a remarkable achievement whatever its fate at the Academy Awards. Thirty-nine-year-old director Andrey Zvyagintsev shot his debut effort on a bare-bones budget (just over $400,000), in a difficult location (Lake Ladoga, north of St. Petersburg near the Finnish border), with young, untested actors. Equally impressive, screenwriters Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky merge suspense with allegory to create a movie that manages to be riveting, even shocking, yet pensive and thought-provoking.
The story is simple if mysterious. In contemporary Russia, two brothers come home one afternoon to find their prodigal father has returned after a 12-year absence. Without an explanation for his disappearance or declaration of his intentions, the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) takes the boys on a fishing expedition, an unexpected holiday fraught with inexplicable urgency. Laconic and dour, he is ill-suited for the task, alternately ignoring and intimidating his sons.
The boys, needless to say, are excited, confused and wary. Andrey (Vladimir Garin), the oldest, is determined to give this stranger the benefit of the doubt, packing his camera and diary to record the occasion, while Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) seethes with resentment, fully expecting to be bullied and exploited. Zvyagintsev owes a great debt to these precocious young actors: Garin imbues Andrey with a hopeful innocence, wanting to please his father while remaining loyal to his brother; Dobronravov lends Vanya a natural stubbornness, his chin jutting forward in perpetual pique.
Whatever their predispositions, the boys have little information to help them assess their situation. Clearly their father is distracted, impatient, stopping repeatedly to make calls from roadside phone booths. At one point, he abruptly cancels the trip, putting his sons on a rickety bus back home, where they blame each other for their father's arbitrary behavior. Then suddenly, the man is sweeping them once more into his car, explaining that they have time for fishing after all before he must attend to business.
So the journey proceeds, a series of incongruous incidents that grow more and more ominous. No sooner do they set camp near a bucolic lake, where the fish are biting, than the father rousts them to travel further north. When Vanya complains (as children do on vacation), he is banished from the car, left alone on the roadside to endure a cold downpour before being retrieved. Despite such humiliations, the father insists on being called Poppa. Indeed, he seems prepared to use violence at any sign of disrespect.
By the third day, the boys seem destined for a journey into the heart of darkness as the father ferries them to a desolate island far from civilization. Although the boys don't know it, he has come to retrieve a strongbox long buried in the ground. Suspicious of his motives, growing more fearful and more belligerent, Vanya steals the man's knife. Paradoxically, his father's anger, when it finally surfaces, is directed at Andrey, precipitating a series of miscalculations that lead to the inevitable tragedy. But it's what happens afterward that makes The Return so fascinating.
For a novice director, Zvyagintsev exhibits masterful control of his material, building tension from the first scene with the confidence of a far more practiced filmmaker. The Return works not because he convinces us that the boys are in danger, but because he keeps us second-guessing about their situation. Their father is brusque and short-tempered, but he is also fair and forgiving. When Vanya, made to wash dishes after breakfast, tosses his father's mess kit into the lake, the man pretends to believe it was an accident, and offers to teach the boy how to make a bowl from a piece of wood. Despite his Old Testament approach to parenting, the father has been teaching his sons a good deal about life--about surviving--as though to make up in a week for a decade of neglect.
Zvyagintsev declines to comment on his story, leaving the audience to speculate about the father's past and his ambiguous present, and the story is never resolved. Was the father cajoled into spending time with his children by their mother (Natalia Vdovina), or is he using them as props in some nefarious scheme? Is he taciturn and tough in a good way--a man's man--or is he a chilling example of modern anomie? What was in the strongbox, anyway?
The Return doesn't answer these questions, but folds them into moral dilemmas that illustrate human frailty. We all act on incomplete knowledge, our self-interest and insecurities often in conflict with more charitable instincts. With its biblical allusions and parable structure, the movie could have devolved into pretentious preaching. Zvyagintsev, however, is too good a filmmaker to let a sermon ruin a story.