Return of the Prodigal Father; Andrey Zvyagintsev Talks About “The Return”
by Erica Abeel
“The Return,” a first feature from Siberian-born Andrey Zvyagintsev, has sparked excitement along the festival circuit and copped a slew of awards. An allegorical thriller with echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky, the film took the Golden Lion in Venice, along with Best First Film; Discovery of the Year from the European Film Academy Awards; and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. The triumph in Venice — the first for a debut Russian film since Tarkovsky won the Golden Lion in 1962 — also compelled the Russians to applaud Zvyagintsev, who is an outsider in his own country.
On its surface “The Return” is an intimate look at rebellion against patriarchal authority — yet that description does little to conjure its meta-meaning, which will be hotly debated by cinephiles. Vanya and Andrey, two young brothers, run home after a fight with neighborhood kids to discover their father has returned after a 12-year absence. With the half-hearted blessing of their mother, they set out with the tactiturn father, who they’ve known only from a faded photo, on what they believe will be a fishing vacation. An inscrutable bully, the father incurs Vanya’s growing defiance: What if he’s a murderer? he asks his older brother; How do we even know he’s our father? Eventually the truck stops, cafes, and lakes — shot in a disquieting crepuscular light — give way to the primeval wilderness coastline. The three embark on a boat for a remote island; the boys don’t know it, but the father hopes to unearth a mysterious strongbox there. Growing ever more rebellious and belligerent, Vanya steals the man’s knife, and escalating tensions precipitate a tragedy that has felt inevitable from the outset.
With its controlled quality of foreboding and palette of perennial dusk, “The Return” is not only an esthetic marvel — it also marks a double “return.” A father literally returns to his sons. And the film harks back as well to a pre-Revolutionary religious and mystical strain in Russian thought, from Dostoyevsky to the philosopher Berdyaev. In the same spirit, “The Return” refuses to uplift and instruct, as per the directives of Communism. Not the first, of course, to do this, yet Zvyagintsev produces images and actions on screen that seem to stand in for a hyper-reality. Stripped of any social or chronological origins, the father is a universal symbol of “the prodigal father.” He comes from nowhere, and he’s bound for nowhere.
All this intriguing stuff, however, did not make for smooth sledding when indieWIRE sat down with the filmmaker at the offices of Kino, his distributor. Fine-featured and ascetic-looking — or maybe wan from jet lag — the 39-year-old auteur does not speak English, so a translator, steeped in Slavic gloom, was on hand — as well as the director’s lovely, raptly attentive wife. Zviagintsev uses a great deal of language to say — with great politesse — No comment. “I vowed that I wasn’t going to talk about what I myself see in my film,” he says in the press notes. “I want to leave the viewer one on one with the movie — without the director’s commentary getting in the way.” Fair enough. Still, interviewing Zvyagintsev is like trying to shake loose a secret from the Sphinx.
indieWIRE: How did you come to filmmaking?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: I knew, starting in 10th grade, I wanted to be in theater and an actor. I went to acting school in Siberia, but there was no future there — and I was consumed with ambition. So I enrolled in the Acting Department of Moscow State Theatre School. Then I went into experimental theater, performing in theater labs.
iW: When did you move from theater to film?
Zvyagintsev: 1993 was a bad year in Russia post-Perestroika and I had trouble finding work. So I took a job filming a commercial for a furniture store. I learned the craft that way, came to understand the shooting process. I was blown away by “l’Avventura,” and gorged on the films of the ’60s, “Rocco and his Brothers,” and Rohmer.
iW: How did you make the leap from commercials to a feature?
Zvyagintsev: I got discovered by Dimitri Lesnevsky, my producer, who’s one of the co-founders of the Russian network Ren-TV. I think of him as my godfather. He hired me to direct three episodes of a Russian TV series, “Black Room.”
After that he asked me to make a movie from a screenplay of “The Return,” which I transformed. It was a genre film, a thriller. I wanted to give the audience a sense of time passing, so I added the division into seven days. In the original screenplay, the father’s box was an object coveted by bandits and the audience ended up learning its contents! Plot devices took precedence over pure drama. Lesnevksy let me do as I pleased with the screenplay.
iW: What was your budget?
Zvyagintsev: $500,000. We filmed in 35mm, but used video for the underwater scenes.
iW: How did you find the two boys?
Zvyagintsev: I held screen tests for six months in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I worried about the boy who played Andrey. He’d been in a car accident and had an attention deficit, it so I took a risk casting him. For the father I found an oddball actor, who’d held himself back because he’d become ashamed of performing on stage. That brought us closer together. I had been overcome with a similar feeling and that was why I didn’t have a career in the theater.
iW: The boy who played Andrey drowned in a tragic accident on June 25, right before the film’s first screening. Do you find something eerie in that?
Zvyagintsev: June 25, 2002 was also the date we began shooting. So that seems to be a magic number. We sent out email invitations to see the final cut, but the boy had gone to the country. He dived from a boat out on the lake and was never seen again. For me, it was a horrible tragedy, without thinking about any omen.
iW: What was the inspiration for the film?
Zvyagintsev: Everything that fed my energy and imagination is something that I’m disinclined to speak about. I’ll say this: Can you imagine how someone felt who’s been waiting for an opportunity to make a movie for 10 years?
iW: Is the father the real father? He seemed threatening and scary.
Zvyagintsev: Do you think he somehow disappears from the picture? Or that he’s never been there? What do you mean?
iW: At times he seems like an impostor, who means to harm the boys. I don’t think a real father would abandon his child by the road in a rainstorm.
Zvyagintsev: Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe there are fathers who would do that. In Tim Roth‘s “The War Zone,” the father rapes his daughter. That father is a real monster.
iW: Point taken. Why did the father return?
Zvyagintsev: If I told you, would that give you a clue to the film?
iW: It might give me a clearer sense of it.
Zvyagintsev: I’m afraid there is no clue. You either perceive it or not. There are things which are without answers, and there is nobody who can explain them. Either we feel them and sense them, or not. Sometimes we just give up and carry on. That’s normal. I can’t do much to help the members of the audience who don’t understand certain things in the film. It would be like telling another person what that person is already seeing by himself.
Art is not some sort of guideline for understanding. It’s a thing unto itself. The most important thing for me is the image, not the thought.
iW: Yet you’ve been quoted as saying “the film is a mythological look at human life.” Could you elaborate on that?
Zvyagintsev: It’s like if you watch this movie from the standpoint of everyday life, it’s a mistake, because it’s much broader, and the mystery of the film won’t reveal itself to you. [At my frustrated expression] One shouldn’t speak out loud about sacral and important meanings because as soon as we start blabbering about them, all that is magic and sacral immediately evaporates. One should suggest what is of real importance. That’s what I tried to do in my film.
iW: Nevertheless, if you had to give a brief description of your film —
Zvyagintsev: I would say that it’s about the metaphysical incarnation of the soul’s movement from the Mother to the Father.
iW: [aieee!] What techniques did you use to generate suspense?
Zvyagintsev: It’s a bit premature to talk about techniques, since this is my first movie. I proceeded by intuition. Many friends whom I trust suggested that I open the father’s box, reveal what was in it. My intuition was not to do that. I felt it should be left as it was.
iW: Is there currently a thriving Russian film industry?
Zvyagintsev: It’s hard for me to talk about, because I’m not in the mainstream. I didn’t go to film school, I was in theater. There’s Aleksei German, a master, famous both in Russia and outside. And Otar Ioselliani from Georgia, but he mostly works in France.
iW: Reviewers have picked up on echos of Tarkovsky in “The Return.” In what ways did he influence you?
Zvyagintsev: In his attitude toward the rhythm and flow of time. A dream-like pace. Bresson compared film and cinematography. Film shows. Cinematography instills something in you. Tarkovsky knows how to instill. Film entertains with different angles, quick moves, like a commercial. But filmmakers like [Wim] Wenders allow themselves to observe a subject for a long time without changing an angle, and allow you to do that along with them. They draw an audience into a frame by contemplating it themselves, without hurry.
iW: How do you explain the festival success of “The Return”?
Zvyagintsev: If I could answer, I would know what to do with my next movie. And I would feel [laughing] like a whore. I don’t have to know the reason why. There’s no recipe.