The idea that you can watch as many DVDs as you want for one monthly price and keep them as long as you want with no late fees, which drew me to Netflix a decade or so ago, already feels too restrictive. The discs I order one day are rarely what I’m in the mood for when they arrive, so they tend to sit by the TV for weeks while I download others from the Watch Instantly list. Sure enough, when I got home from a live performance too late to go to a movie theater last night, I skimmed through the instant downloads and found The Return, a Russian movie from 2003. I’d missed that when it came out, and it sounded like just the thing.
I used to think it would bother me to watch movies on my laptop, but the sound and image quality are usually just fine, and I sit so close that the image takes up about as much of my field of vision as the screen in a movie theater does even when I sit near the front, as I usually do. Watching a movie like The Return does make me wish for a bigger screen, though, since so much of its power comes from its visuals.
The Return feels very Russian: moody and brimming with significance and potential tragedy even when nothing much seems to be happening. Like Sunflower, it starts with the return of a father from a forced labor camp—at least, I assume that’s where he was, though we know only what his sons know, and they’re never told. In both films, there’s a son who has no memory of this authoritarian stranger and resents his intrusion in what had been a very happy life. But the similarity ends there, since Sunflower takes the gauzy, art-house soap approach to the story, while The Return is intense but elegantly spare.
There are two brothers in this story: Andrey (Vladimir Garin), who’s probably about 15, and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), who’s probably about 13, though that’s just a guess since the script doesn’t bother with that sort of extraneous data. The film follows the boys day by day, starting with the one before their father appears. On his first day home, he takes them on what’s supposed to be a fishing trip, though it turns out to be a tense, often perilous journey with a mysterious goal and a tragic twist. None of the three talk much, so we learn about them mostly by watching them cope with setbacks and test each other’s limits—and, ultimately, their own. Their uncommunicative, unsmiling father appears at first to be untrustworthy, maybe unstable and certainly cruel, but it gradually becomes clear to us, if not to the increasingly resentful Ivan, that he’s just trying to give his sons a crash course in the survival skills he’s convinced that they need.
From the moody greens of the wild seashore and beautifully decayed buildings of the boy’s hometown to the black-and-white stills we see at the end, like a slide show of their lives shown in reverse order, it’s all beautifully shot—so beautifully that I wish I had seen it on a bigger screen. Guess it’s time to hook up my TV to the Internet.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.