Some may impute the twentieth century's unhealthy prurience to what can be loosely termed liberation, to being able to choose one's partner, enjoy her affection before vows are exchanged, and indulge our most vulgar whims for the sake of peace of mind and body – an odd form of liberation to say the least. While romantic flings often remain some of our sweetest memories as we grow old, what this siege upon proper mores involves is a rescindment of moral responsibility. For a little more than one hundred fifty years we have been informed that we are nothing more than advanced mammals empowered to write off our basest thoughts and acts as traces of a more feral past. Now we should not deny the survivalist instincts that grip us when someone or even something we love is endangered; but we also should not forego what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, namely our imagination. The unimaginative will always see a sexual attraction because they think any interest in the shape and looks of another human being always has to do with sex; to their ears and eyes, compliments by heterosexuals to members of the same gender bespeak hidden desires; and every Romantic poet and his princesse lointaine are for them nothing more than an as yet uncommitted felony (restraint, as it were, that they attribute to cowardice). Which would explain the widespread puzzlement at the behavior depicted in this fine film.
The beginning sets the unusual tone: the Father (Andrei Shchtenin) and his Son (Aleksei Neimyshev) are seen embracing and scantily clothed, but we learn that the Son has had a nightmare and turned to his Father for consolation (the first words spoken are "it's over, it's over"). That the Son is about nineteen or twenty makes the scene less ordinary, although there are few things more everyday than a parent consoling a child. The next scene takes us to a military academy and we remember that Russia a few years ago was still officially at war. Here the Father, a very handsome fellow who was told a long time ago that he had a fantastic smile, drops in on his son for no apparent reason. The strangeness of such a visit, which is much more commonly incident to lovers, feeds the notion that what we are watching has some kind of subliminal incestuous element – which is, it must be said here and now, patently ridiculous. In time we learn why the Father is so obsessed with his Son: he is a widower; his Son, like he once was, is a soldier and about the age at which he became a Father; and this academy comprises the Son's first real time away from home. As they talk the camera switches from one to the other without showing us both at the same time, as if they were the same person on a chronological delay. The Father bids farewell and the Son continues his exercises until he notices an angelic face at the window. He approaches and finds a young woman who is ostensibly the focus of all the romantic urges a man his age could possibly nurture – and again the camera does not let them unite. They peek-a-boo behind the window bars (women in the film are exclusively shown behind bars or balcony rails), exchange mild accusations of deceit, and eventually agree that the girl might be seeing someone else. "Is he older?" the Son asks. "Women are always older," she avers, then tells him: "You always move ahead alone, without me. You're afraid that your father will think he's a bother." Why would he be a bother when he loves his son so much that it kills him to see him leave the house? Wouldn't most sons want such affection and thoughtfulness?
Indeed they would, which brings us to Sasha. A neighbor of sorts whose father and the Father were once army buddies in a different war, Sasha cannot compare to the two strapping, handsome men who do not lack confidence. In Sasha we find their foil, a soft, feminine sensitive type not unlike the kitten he cradles towards the end of the film. "Should I sit at the table by the pictures?" he asks when we first see him, with the pictures suggesting a private shrine. The Father visited Sasha's father last summer, but in the winter he vanished never to return. "He didn't even live with us any more," opines the kitten, who then confesses that his father changed when he came back from the war and took to drink. The Son can empathize to some degree but his military demeanor obliges him initially to treat Sasha like a wimp, entice him to a daring act on a makeshift bridge between two windows (at exactly the film's midway point, the two young men are struggling against a pink sky when a jet passes overhead and the Son says never to be afraid of anything), then evince unilateral kindness in a tram ride all around the small coastal town. One might guess that the Son, who is confident yet scared, fears that without his Father he would be much more like Sasha; perhaps, on the inside, he already is. His love for his Father is always violent, passionate, rough and strained, just like the lovers who cannot live with or without one another. When he disclaims any interest in his own childhood because it involved relying and worshiping his Father, he raises his hands to the heavens only to have them clench still rings; in another scene he spins a ball on his hand then orbits his Father like the moon around the earth. And yet he cannot overcome the feeling that if he loses his Father, he will lose everything. "Nothing compares to my father's disappearance," Sasha admits and the Son thinks about the choices he will have to make.
The film's title recalls this book (which is more accurately rendered as "Fathers and Children") but makes it clear that there should be two distinct persons who have difficulty in becoming two other distinct persons. The father of a small child is not the same person as the father of a soldier; there are specific fears and doubts. In a way the father is excited about his son's youth and his shape, but there is nothing sexual here: the Father is obsessed with his past and the differences between that and his Son's present; whereas a child will always look upon a parent and wonder whether he will share his fate. Although I am normally loath to admit an author's own observations into a critique of his work for fear of diluting whatever imagery, patterning, and poetry he is trying to convey, sometimes it is better to let people defend themselves. In Sokurov's own words:
On the top floor of an old house, a small family lives under the same roof – a Father and his Son. The Father is no longer on active military duty, having abandoned his beloved air force regiment and unwillingly put an end to his military career owing to the particular circumstances. He was once an active participant in military combat, but just as he reached maturity he was commissioned to the reserves. Training at flight school, he met his one and only love, a young woman who would become his wife, bear him a son, and die only slightly less young. At the time he was only twenty; and this love would remain his secret joy that could never reoccur. His Son grew up just like his Father; he would probably become a soldier as well. In his Son's features he finds a constant reminder of his wife and he cannot separate his Son from his unfulfilled love: his Son and wife are united as love itself. For that reason the Father cannot imagine life without his Son, and his Son faithfully and deeply loves his Father. The Son's feelings, present since childhood, strengthen in time into an instinctive yet not wholly understood moral responsibility subject to life's trials. The Son follows in the footsteps of the Father. Their love is of almost mythic proportions. Such love does not occur in reality; it is the conceit of fairy tales.
Apart from this summary, there is nothing more to Father and Son except the details. Mythic or not, the portrayals are exquisite because there is no role more convincing, no truth that generates more head-nodding than two people who obviously love each other. So when the Father wants the Son to stop being a soldier when he comes home and make him a son again by having him change out of uniform, we should shrug our shoulders in comprehension. When the Son tells the Father that the latter will marry again, we think of the Son's girlfriend and wonder whether this may not be a matter of coincidence. And when we see the Son's springtime dream beginning the film and the winter of the Father's loneliness as it closes, we should not be surprised because real love is not as fickle as the seasons that change our perception of what love can and should be. And here is where we are reminded that love, among its endless powers, can also crucify and allow to be crucified.