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No happy ‘Return’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Ivan Dobronravov, left, and Vladimir Garin star in Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's "The Return," showing tonight through Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House.
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Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” featured a mysterious box, whose contents are known only to characters in the film.

So does “The Return,” the debut film by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. And both films took gold: “Pulp Fiction” earned the Palme d’Or – the Golden Palm – from the Cannes Film Festival upon its release in 1994; “The Return” took this year’s Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

And there the similarities come to a crashing halt. “Pulp Fiction” was a vibrant kaleidoscope of contemporary urban life that never pretended it was doing anything but providing its audience with visceral thrills. “The Return,” its top prize at Venice notwithstanding, is a monotonous film that drowns in self-seriousness, hinting at big messages which it ultimately cannot deliver.

In “The Return,” two brothers – Andrey, in his early teens, and Vanya, a few years younger – are greeted at their drab home one day by a most unfamiliar sight: their father, who has been gone for more than a decade. Nothing is explained – where this father has been, why he has returned, why he is so cold and hard – to either the sons or the audience.

Instead of a context, we get a fishing trip. The father is taciturn and distant, but determined to bring his sons to a remote island to catch some fish. There seems to be some concrete reason for the expedition, and out in remote, gray Russia, in a scene filmed with heightened but empty tension, dad does indeed dig up a small box.

But the contents of the box, like everything else in “The Return,” remain a mystery. Not to worry – none of this hits deep enough to keep a viewer up at night, wondering about the possible meanings he might have overlooked. Yes, there are biblical and political references, but all so vague as to be without substance.

If anything, “The Return” is about the differing reactions Andrey and Vanya have to the reunion with their father. Andrey is pliant – hardly overjoyed to be reacquainted, but willing to obey orders and see if any good is to come out of things. Vanya is defiant and angry. But as things resolve, Andrey comes to see things much as Vanya does, making their earlier differences of little consequence.

After the film proper has ended, the viewer is treated to a series of still images of the characters, taken after the action has played out. Like the film itself, the snapshots reveal almost nothing, but hint at a meaning with a capital M. The pictures seem further evidence that beneath the reserved and accomplished exterior of “The Return” lies precious little.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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