Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Growing Up Russian

If you're a right thinking individual, you hate coming of age stories. They're almost always an excuse for adults to wallow in adolescent bathos, typically set to a very bad but very familiar soundtrack.

The Return (Vozvraschenie) is one of the rare exceptions. It takes a look at just what it means to "come of age" in a the world we really live in. The one where nothing and nobody cares about your precious goddamn feelings.

We have two brothers - Andrei the elder and Ivan the younger - who are just going about their aimless lives in provincial Russia when one day their long absent Father reappears. And takes them fishing. This is handled not as some joyous reunion but an awkward change from their daily routine. The tension and discomfort in the family is so refreshing because it's real - you know this is how families are because yours does the same thing. Only few works of film or
 literature are ever honest enough to say so.

The Father has an unexplained past and it remains as such for the entire film. Where others would try to focus on the man he speaks to at the wharf or the box he digs up on the island while his sons are off catching worms, the story remains squarely focused on the dynamic of the three main characters and is all the better for it. See, the boys' Father is not the nicest of people. Few movie fathers are, it keeps things interesting. But in the world they inhabit, their Father's cruelties are quite clearly preparing them for life as men.

Russian readers are free to correct me on this but there is the distinct impression - both in the context of the film and in a century of literature - that life in Russia is not easy. It's damn near Hobbesian in fact. The Father is gruff and hard with his boys but you can see it's to prepare them for a brutal and unforgiving world. Ivan is the most resistant to these lessons and yet the most in need of them - the film opens with him chickening out of diving off a tower along with all the other boys from school. There's nothing inherently wrong with chickening out - it's a great survival instinct - but in the world Ivan and Andrei inhabit, doing so shows weakness. And there is no sympathy for the weak here.

So this is what I mean when I say this is the rare honest coming of age story. Andrei and Ivan go off on a fishing trip with their Father, to do the whole bonding thing but also so their Father can try to mold men out of these two boys. Because their world - and our world, if we're really honest - has no patience for those who can't cut it with no relief offered. Important lessons, honest lessons, like how sometimes no matter how great your effort or noble your motivation, you will fail.

That's the most important lesson anyone can ever learn. Vozvraschenie delivers that, along with some of the most beautiful cinematography I've ever seen.

No comments:

Post a Comment