Hold that question. It's worth returning to.
Narratively, Zvyagintsev's brooding drama has a rugged simplicity. Two young brothers have been living for years with their mother and grandmother in some dreary corner of Russia when, one day, life changes. Their father, whom they haven't seen since they were little children, suddenly reappears. Gruff and taciturn, he offers to take them on a fishing trip. The three set off in an old car and, after stopping in a nameless city where the boys are set upon by thieves, they traverse a densely forested countryside where they see nary another human being. They fish and camp out and, in a strange way, get to know each other. But that's not the main thing.
The main thing, if you want a phrase to cover it, is the palpable mystery that grips every frame of Zvyagintsev's film. We start off watching the two brothers as they and other boys negotiate the dare of diving off a high tower into a reservoir under a slate-gray sky (the younger brother can't do it, and the older one soon watches the other kids taunt him). Then the brothers are at home hearing that their father is there. They see him on a bed asleep, posed very much like a Renaissance painting of the dead Jesus. To check if it's really him, they search out an old photograph that is hidden in a Bible containing an engraving of Abraham and Isaac.
The Biblical references--there are no others so overt--tell us something general about The Return's intent rather than specific about its meaning. And the film really doesn't need the references anyway. Its whole thrust is evident in the gravity of the film's movement, in the austere precision of Zvyagintsev's compositions, in the soundtrack's blend of silence and wind and strange musical noises, in the way that nature both cushions and threatens to overwhelm human life, in the dawning sense that our own perception and understanding may be the keys to the film's enigmas.
It's been quite a while since I saw any European film that convincingly projected the same ambitions as masterpieces by Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, films that find metaphysical perplexity in human struggle and on the surfaces of man-made and natural worlds. That Zvyagintsev even aspires to such altitudes is astonishing enough. That he attains them with such thorough assurance, on his first film, is doubly amazing. But perhaps even more remarkable is that his film, coming not long after Aleksandr Sukurov's Russian Ark, a movie of a kindred audacity and brilliance, suggests that Russia may be in the early stages of the sort of cinematic renewal that seems wholly inconceivable in western Europe right now.
We shall see if these promising harbingers herald a full-blown spring. If so, no doubt the late Andrei Tarkovsky will be given ample credit as the movement's inspiration. He'll deserve it, too, but I must confess something at this point. Personally, I've always liked the idea of Tarkovsky--a Russian master dealing with grand spiritual themes--but I've never really liked his films. Andrei Rublev, Nostalghia, The Sacrifice, etc., strike me as ponderous in the extreme, grandiose gestures by an artist whose seriousness is nowhere tempered by modesty, humor or restraint.
For my tastes, Tarkovsky is most successful in the films he inspires. Call it heresy, but Steven Soderbergh's elegant remake of Solaris strikes me as far more persuasive than Tarkovsky's original. And Sukurov and Zvyagintsev, who now must be counted among the world's (let alone Russia's) great directors, are clearly "school of Tarkovsky," as they themselves would acknowledge. Zvyagintsev, while saying he does "not try to imitate Tarkovsky or quote from him," also allows, "For a Russian film director it is impossible not to feel Tarkovsky's overreaching influence, because he, perhaps, is the most profound individual in our cinema."
The key to Tarkovsky's stature--which seems certain to endure--is that he deliberately and very dramatically reintroduced Russia's spiritual heritage to its contemporary cinema. In doing so, he simultaneously reclaimed centuries of artistic tradition for the Russian people and repudiated the 20th-century's conventions of Soviet and social realist cinema. Tarkovksy did this, moreover, under the Soviet system, so he had to adopt a certain amount of subterfuge, yet the cinematic language he developed was not just expediently evasionary; it was, in line with the tradition it set out to revive, intentionally mystical and anti-literal.
The Return honors that example in spades. Its story is dramatically engrossing and, on a surface level, entirely comprehensible. Two boys and their long-lost dad slowly edge across the emotional barriers that separate them during an extended, on-the-road reunion. A very human situation, enacted with passion and precision (the two boys who play the sons, Vladimir Garin as Andrei, the elder, and Ivan Dobronravov as Vanya, deserve citation for their terrific work). Yet, from the beginning, every fiber of the viewer's being registers that the film is not about--or not only about--the basic narrative it relates. What, then, is it about?
I'm only going to offer some thoughts here, not answers. And some of the thoughts may be incorrect, to the extent that any readings of the film are less correct than others. Clearly Zvyagintsev, like Tarkovsky, is good at refracting meanings suggestively, so that they resonate on different levels. For example, one of my first thoughts upon coming out of the film was that it metaphorically comments on the collective Russian psyche in recent years. The story's father, after all, returns after being away for 12 years: about the amount of time that passed between the collapse of the Soviet system and Vladimir Putin's rise. In watching the story, you can't help but think about how people react to a sudden (re)imposition of authority with a complex mix of resentment and relief.
Yet here's the entirety of the Director's Statement that Zvyagintsev issued: "When I was shooting the film I did not see the story as an everyday tale or a social one. To a great extent, the film is a mythological look on human life. This is probably what I would like the audience to keep in mind before they enter the screening room."
As puzzling as that injunction to viewers may seem, I think Zvyagintsev is being entirely candid in attempting to steer us away from "social" meanings and toward "mythological" ones. Russian critic Oleg Sulkin has written that Zvyagintsev "abhors everything quotidian, everything immediately contemporary and concrete; he has no faith whatever in the expressive potential of the self-discredited society directly surrounding him."
So what does that leave, in terms of the meanings intended by the director? I grant any artist the right to be cagey or opaque when asked to explain his work, yet sometimes such maneuvers are meaningful in themselves. In an interview included with the film's press notes, Zvyagintsev, commenting on the story's human interactions, says, "Everything here has a meaning, everything is predetermined." Yet he declines to delve further into those meanings. Finally, pressed by the interviewer as to what the film is "about" (you can imagine him meeting such questions every time he appears with the film), he says this: "I would say that it's about the metaphysical incarnation of the soul's movement from the Mother to the Father."
Oleg Sulkin takes such statements seriously. After suggesting that the Father in The Return might be modeled after the Father in Tarkovsky's The Mirror, he writes, "But there is no ignoring a crucial difference: Zvyagintsev's Father is stripped of any clear markers of social or chronological origins: he is a universal symbol of the 'prodigal father.'" The critic says that Zvyagintsev "viscerally rejects" most Russian cinema "in order to draw support from the archetypally Russian intellectual and spiritual tradition that was trampled by the Bolshevik regime."
In other words, Zvyagintsev's project--very much like Sokurov's, and both deriving from Tarkovsky--involves the complete and utter rejection of the Communist past, in order to recover the culture it effaced. As to why this effort would be greeted less enthusiastically in New York than in Venice or Paris, I would simply suggest left-leaning American intellectuals still tend to be uniquely soft-headed in their view of Soviet Communism; thus any Russian artist who would vaunt old (i.e., pre-revolutionary) culture over that of the Red Terror risks a chilly rejection from pointyheads who think that Stalin was somehow less bad than Hitler. Their tut-tutting, which also greeted Russian Ark in certain circles, simply offers further proof of the ingrained parochialism of the American left.
Still, as I see it, The Return implicitly takes aim at all sectors of political and cultural thought in the West. Our "intellectual" artists give up all claim on spiritual subjects--like those explored by Bergman, Bresson, Dreyer, Antonioni and others in decades past--and what do we get in their place? The Passion of the Christ, a bravely committed work but one in which mystery is sacrificed to dogma, spirituality surrendered to religion, intellective reach clamped into the prison of orthodox literalism.
We in the West live in a society that's arguably even more "self-discredited" than the one Zvyagintsev inhabits, yet where are the Western filmmakers who are exploring this decline as what it essentially is: a spiritual crisis of the most profound and dangerous sort? In its leap toward a visionary and mystical cinematic language, The Return not only offers hope for a resurgence of Russian culture and cinema, it can't help but make us wonder about the direction of our own.