So, what's in the box? The glowing MacGuffin from Pulp Fiction? The plutonium from Kiss Me Deadly? Gwyneth Paltrow's head? Or maybe a suitcase bomb left over from the Cold War? That's the least of the enigmas posed by Andrei Zvyagintsev's first feature, The Return, a huge festival hit and a limpidly accessible excursion into the murky realm of visionary Russian film of such directors as Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov.
To the mystic rhapsodies of archetypes, history, family dynamics, and personal history composed by that pair of geniuses, Zvyagintsev adds formal tightness and down-to-earth detail. The questions the film raises may be unanswerable, its meaning irresolvable, but its depictions of the pathology and the desperate love of that basic political and social unit, the family, are wrenchingly acute and familiar.
Sibling rivalry, for example. On top of a dismal lighthouse at the end of a long pier stretching into the Gulf of Finland, 13-year-old Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), taunted by his pals as a pig and a coward, is too afraid of heights to jump into the water. His older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), at first encourages him, then abandons him in disgust, and Vanya remains weeping and shivering on his perch until his mother (Natalia Vdovina) comes to rescue him. The next day, Andrei grudgingly joins the others in ragging Vanya about his disgrace. The brothers fight and run home.
It's just kids squabbling, of course, but it's also Cain and Abel, or maybe it's the struggle between the fledgling forces vying for control of post-Soviet Russia. Such religious and political subtexts inevitably underlie Russian films, and Zvyagintsev shows no reluctance to indulge in that tendency. Once home, the boys are shocked to learn from their mother that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko, who looks like an evil George Clooney) has returned from a long absence -- 12 years, or since the fall of the Soviet system.
The brothers rush to the bedroom, where dad lays inert under a sheet in a pose reminiscent of some Renaissance painting of Jesus (Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ, as it turns out). The boys then troop to the attic to find an old family photo to confirm his identity: The photo is stuck in a Bible next to an illustration of the sacrifice of Isaac. The next morning, after a meal in which the father shares wine (!) with his sons (Andrew and John!), he invites them on a fishing (!) trip.
That's more allusions than you'll find in the average Matrix movie, with many more overlooked and to come. And no special effects. Instead, what follows is an authentic lousy family road trip that takes father and sons to an eerie island in Lake Ladoga where dad digs up the mystery box and things get really strange. But never ungainly or implausible -- all is meticulously detailed and superbly acted and played out against the decrepit Baltic beauty familiar from such filmmakers as Aki Kaurismäki and Sarunas Bartas.
Vanya, played by Dobronravov in a depiction of bullheaded pre-adolescence rivaling that of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Les quatre cents coups/The 400 Blows, is at first the stronger-willed of the boys. He suspects the father and resents his encroachment, and his sullen, passive resistance (refusing to call his father "dad," not eating his soup, constantly complaining) brings increasingly blunt and even brutal reprimands. Andrei is more ambivalent; he wants dad's approval but also needs Vanya's companionship. Vanya calls Andrei a suck-up and imitates his sycophancy. Dad calls Andrei a blockhead and bounces his head against the car door. Both use him as a pawn in their Machiavellian power struggle. Until Andrei discovers his own power, that is, and the circular nature of the story implied by the title begins to emerge.
To what point? Why, for example, is the submerged boat shown in the opening images empty? Why is the father shot in the same pose in the boat at the end as he was in the bed in the beginning? Why does his image vanish from the family photos? Why is he in none of the photos Andrei has taken of the trip? (Marin, who resembles an adolescent David Hemmings in Blow-Up, drowned in Lake Ladoga shortly after the film was finished.) Any answers lead to more questions; for me they're all rendered moot when the two sons look out at the water and shout, in recognition and in despair, "Dad!"