The Return (12a)
The Return is a beautiful, haunting film that won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2003. It was the debut film of the Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. He described winning the award in these terms. “Sometimes miracles happen. And this is one of them. The film has gripped something in the air which influences people, grips their souls. Cinema is for me a spiritual effort and a collective one with the spectator”. The joy of the victory was overshadowed however by the accidental death of Volodia Garin who plays Andrei, the older of the two young brothers around whom the plot develops, just before the award was made. Volodia had overcome his fear of water in order to take on the role in the film. He was drowned when his dinghy overturned.
The film has an austere, leeched out beauty partly created by the cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman, but also a product of the crew filming intensively during the ‘white nights’ of midsummer near St Petersburg. The cluster of critics’ words around this film are ‘mystery’, ‘mystical’, ‘a moral fable’, ‘a parable’. But none of them really seek to unpack what these mean in relation to this remarkable film that is all these things. Perhaps a way to begin to do this is to take Peter Bradshaw’s comment in ‘The Guardian’ that ‘the movie is suffused with the idea of a creator’s power without a creator’s love’ and contrast it with the few clues the actors and the director have given us about what they felt they were creating.
Although the director has never given his interpretation of the film, he has said that the most significant award for the cast and the crew was the Catholic jury prize, awarded by the Catholic church to secular art. And in discussing the loss of Volodia, Konstantin Levrenko, who plays the father in the film, said that religion also seemed to drive Garin.
“Volodia had a strong intelligence, surprising me and Andrei a lot by the depth of his ideas. He was a really religious boy, a real believer. I am also a believer, and so is Andrei (Zyvaginetsev). The Catholic jury prize is precious to all of us, as are Christian values”.
These comments stand in stark contrast to Bradshaw’s as love is surely a Christian value. In Jean Luc Godard’s underrated re-imagining of the Incarnation in a modern context, ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ (1985), Joseph, a cab driver, visiting Mary who lives in a petrol garage on the outskirts of Paris, tells her repeatedly in his distress at her inexplicable pregnancy. ‘Je t’aime, je t’aime’ ‘I love you, I love you’. ‘Mary brusquely replies, ‘Ce n’est pas ca qu’il faut!’ ‘That is not what’s needed!’
Some of this same brusqueness, even apparent emotional cruelty is the tone for much of what goes on in ‘The Return’. Incidentally, Catholic religious orders have of late in films like ‘The Magdalene Laundry’ and ‘Angela’s Ashes’ become almost a by-word in Britain for emotional cruelty and physical brutality. In Godard’s film Mary impatiently instructs Joseph that obedience and acceptance of God’s will are required not an ineffectual self-preoccupation, which he calls ‘love’. Catholicism is deeply suspicious of the pre-eminence that the modern world gives to ‘feelings’. After all it provided a talking cure, Confession, hundreds of years before Freud. It is, to caricature, not a religion of ‘interiority’, but of observance; what is important is what you do, the daily, weekly rhythm of observance and virtuous action, not what you feel about it.
If I had come home from Mass as a child and told my Dad I’d had a religious experience he’d have clipped me round the ear for being cheeky! As you’ll see it is a key feature of “The Return” that it refuses to give us the kind of “interior” knowledge of characters’ feelings and emotions that we take for granted in mainstream cinema.
This matters for “The Return” because there is a lot of apparent cruelty on view. Does this then mean that this self confessedly Catholic film is blasé about pain and suffering? And the Church would reply that there is a mystery here. Unlike the woolly modern critics however, the Church means something very specific by a mystery; the holding that two apparently contradictory ideas can both be true. So Christ was fully human and fully divine. The Eucharist is the commonplace everyday bread on the table, and the physical body of Christ.
I want to suggest that The Return is centred on a mystery in that sense. Parents, like Yahweh in the Old Testament, must be jealous, unreasonably demanding, even ruthless enough to break a child’s spirit in order to be truly loving. And into this tragic but necessary scenario, that this will cost the parent a lot, a further tragedy yet may cruelly intervene. Catholics have too dark, or perhaps, as Volodia’s colleagues might say, too realistic a view of the world to ever be “happy clappy” Christians. The Resurrection co-exists with the Crucifixion, it does not cancel it out. Or as W. B. Yeats puts it; “Nothing can be sole or whole, that has not been rent”.
Andrei Zvyagintsev | Russia | 2003 | 105 minutes | 12a