On New Years Eve Craig and I did something typically "uncool"; we watched a Russian movie on Netflix. We didn't get to watch it "on the big screen" (the TV); no; Anastasia and Zhenya had that, but we watched it on my computer. Nevertheless, it turned out to be one of the most unforgettable experiences. I would say that he and I have probably spent 2-3 hours overall discussing this movie over the three days since we saw it....and both of us have spent even more time thinking about it, and we keep coming back to it. I love movies like this - the ones that make you think. And think. And think.
The plot of The Return involves the sudden re-appearance of a father who, for unknown reasons, disappeared twelve years previously. His two sons, who appear to be around 13 and 15, live with their mother and grandmother in a remote part of Russia, near a large lake. This film is exquisitely shot, and the acting is universally fine - the performances of the two boys are unforgettable. Anyone who knows even a bit of Russian will enjoy hearing it here, because they will understand almost everything. The dialogue is simple but there is actually very little of it. The film is subtitled, but those who hate reading subtitles won't have to do much of it.
The Return is a suspense movie on the surface, but anyone who watches it for that reason will be disappointed. Why did the father disappear? Why did he return? Why does he take the boys on a fishing trip, and then, instead end up taking them to a deserted island in the middle of the lake? The suspense, and the foreboding, ominous feel of the film create a mesmerizing effect, but this is what most would call an "art film" - its essence is in the deeply moving symbolism and in the beautifully developed relationships between the characters. The big questions that arise from the suspense are never answered, which can be frustrating until you realize that the story is told from the children's point of view. And to children, so much of what adults do is a mystery. Why do parents come? Why do they leave? What business is it that they do with other adults?
To children, too, their worlds are made up of their friends and their parents. Hence, in The Return, the world is sparsely populated. Only in a few scenes do any outsiders enter into the boys' lives. That aspect, too, creates a sense of fear and vulnerability...... It adds to the tension of the film, but once you realize that the action is seen from the children's point of view, it says much about the condition of childhood.
For those who are trying to parent children who haven't been with them from infancy, this film can provoke much thought about the approach to discipline, to ways to form relationship, the role of resilience and personality, and, most of all, the need for connection and what happens without it. But, this film can raise deep questions for all parents. While in the story the father has been absent for most of his boys' lives, due to his mysterious business - many parents are absent from children's lives more than they want due to their (from the children's point of view) mysterious "business" and what does that say about how parents need to relate to their children?
Central to the theme of this movie is the critical need for connection. The father has so many of the right instincts. In so many ways he shows compassion. He understands what the boys need to learn to become men. But, the lack of connection he has with his sons makes so much that he does seem random and chaotic - and to the more sensitive boy of the two - frightening. The filmmaker cleverly causes his audience to feel so much anxiety, so many things seem ominously destined to go badly - and yet, throughout the film, it is not the things we fear that come to pass - the horror comes when it is least expected.
This film is up there with the best I have ever seen.
I actually have a great longing to write a paper about it. Sad thing that once you are out of school, time does not allow you to write random papers. But - will you discuss it with me? If you watch this, I'd love, love, love to talk about it with you more via e-mail or facebook, or whatever else we can contrive.
NOTE: This is not something to watch with your children - though, I think I will suggest that Maxim (19), my deep-thinker, watch it. (Curiously, Maxim looks so much like the older brother in the film.) Otherwise, children and even young people who have undergone separation from parents will probably find this film far too upsetting and confusing.