As this sensational film opens one summer afternoon, we drift around a Russian town not far from Europe's largest lake. What we find is almost what one might expect to find in such quiet surroundings – boys and girls basking in the freedom unique to childhood summers – but no girls ever surface in The Return. Had any appeared, we would have had a very different film, one that inevitably would have exploited that tired adage of 'lost bliss' when the real loss is innocence, making childhood's end one of the most irreversible shocks we will endure as human beings. No, this is a film about boys and to a lesser degree about men, who are often boys in bulky disguise, and the boys are left to determine what is fun and what is for wimps and losers. A designation that begins one summer afternoon on a tower atop a rocky beach.
Our wimp will be thirteen–year–old Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and we know this the moment we set eyes on him. That he is the youngest of the group in no way dooms him to be the most cowardly because Ivan is not really a coward. He is simply programmed so as not to allow for blind obedience or peer pressure or group-think. Like countless children, he is frustrated that no one will listen to him, even when his insight into human nature seems remarkable for his or any age – yet that is not his defining characteristic. What makes Ivan tick is a certain wilfulness endemic to artists, a persistent belief in himself and his ability to be correct about a fact or a feeling (one might even say that the greater the artist's genius, the more infallible is his intuition). Computerized minds will recur to Ivan's family situation – the younger of two brothers raised by their mother and maternal grandmother – and impute his obstinacy to a lack of a father. But both the world and Ivan are not that straightforward. So when he cannot bring himself to leap off what admittedly looks like a rather rickety platform, even his fifteen-year old brother Andrei (the late Vladimir Garin) is coerced into calling him a coward. Yet no one actually verified whether he jumped. No one waited around as Ivan sat shivering, out of both cold and apprehension, and no one saw Ivan and Andrei's mother (Natalia Vdovina) race up the steps in feigned indignation. As she cradles him in a warm shirt she tells him what mothers must sometimes say at such pivotal parent-child moments: "No one will ever know" and "I won't tell anyone about this." A minute later she adds: "Some other time, when you're ready, you can jump" – this after she specifically said she had prohibited him from the tower altogether. If, God forbid, a Hollywood version of The Return were ever made, it would have the two of them recollect some fake mushy memory, have a fake cry to some fake soundtrack, and then plan on eating some fake favorite dish together. But there is nothing fake in this realm. That is why the brothers believe their mother when they come home one summer afternoon only to be told to tread quietly because "your father's asleep."
Bleary, curt, peremptory, possessed of a charming thuggishness, he is initially beheld by us and his two sons barefoot and asleep like an ogre napping in wait. The mother handles the situation with demure acceptance, but not surprise. So if he had been expected, why were the sons never told? Why keep Andrei and Ivan, neither of whom remembers ever having a father, in the dark unless there was something in that darkness that she didn't want them to see? Ivan, skeptical in that academic manner, races to the attic to consult what turns out to be a Bible to find there an ensconced twelve-year-old family photo (Ivan as a babe in diapers, Andrei as a tricycle-pedaling toddler, the parents in progenitorial bliss). "It's definitely him," says Andrei with a smile that hints at neither relief nor assurance; we will see this same smile from Andrei again and again, but at far less appropriate moments. Ivan is not as convinced. He does indeed closely resemble the man in the picture, but what has he been doing all this time? "Mom said he was a pilot," says Andrei, unwittingly reinforcing perhaps the most common excuse for an absent father – and here I will permit myself a brief aside. Almost all reviewers mention the mother's stunning words (in Russian those words are but two, "father sleeps"), but inject an exclamation point or a hushing index finger that simply does not belong there. When the mother reveals her incredible news, we understand one thing: to her it is neither news nor incredible. Her index finger does indeed grace her lips, but only to steer a cigarette; and she does not shush her sons as much as insist on common courtesy for the sleeper. As the boys walk from the front door to the ogre's bedside, their grandmother sits at the kitchen table in either a trance or mortal dread. Given how awkwardly the subsequent family dinner proceeds (both women are plainly terrified of their scruffy guest) we understand their reticence. They are not scared of what he could do to them – they presumably have experienced what he is capable of – but what he might do to two new, unfamiliar beings. So they say practically nothing nor protest when the father (Konstanin Lavronenko) announces he is taking his sons on a fishing trip. After all, that is precisely what fathers and sons do together.
This entire setup, including the opening scene with the brothers on a diving tower, runs about twenty magnificent minutes. The lifeblood of the film will then comprise the journey by car to that enormous lake and then a complex series of actions at the lake. Yet the father (he never receives a name, as if fatherhood were his only trait) is consistently evasive about the distance and, one senses, the true purpose. Stock episodes of disobedience and proscription, bullies, inclement weather, lessons on how to be a real man, and betrayals of allegiance are endurable and at times dazzling simply because these are new experiences for this new family. They all understand that the smallest tiff could destroy them. And how does a family act? The boys were raised by their mother and her mother and don't know how to please a dad. Dad himself, shown holding baby Andrei in a montage during the closing credits, has already decided that they should become men now and skip childhood altogether just like he skipped theirs. Until the penultimate sequence on a disconsolate isle, he never treats them like flesh and blood. And as the film ends, slowly and gracefully, they reciprocate the sentiment.
Critics do not agree on the reason for the father's prolonged absence, so I may sound glib in declaring there is only one plausible explanation. Consider the mother's secretiveness and lack of surprise, the father's brutality and eye for other women, his oddly timed phone calls, and the quest that brings them to an unsubdued terrain in the first place, and you might see what I mean. The solution is hinted at throughout the film, although one scene, if watched carefully, seems to give enough away to exclude all alternatives. As the narrative's barometer, Ivan develops several reasonable scenarios and discusses their likelihoods aloud with Andrei, who has little patience for such speculation and is simply glad to have gained a father. Regardless of how rotten a parent is (as mentioned earlier on these pages), a child abandoned by this parent tends to blame himself, and it certainly does not elude Ivan that it was shortly after his birth, not Andrei's, that their father disappeared. For that reason much has been made, perhaps somewhat unfairly, of the story's origin, as director Andrei Zvyagintsev's father abandoned him and his mother when Zvyagintsev was six and never returned. These boys are different, not only because theirs does return, but because he is more mysterious in their presence than when he never existed. And since this is a Russian tale, do not underestimate the importance of the seagull.