In Andrey Zvyagintsev's "The Return," the line between symbolism and a deeper mysticism is crossed early and often. The film unfolds with the brittle clarity of a dream that comes back to haunt you in full force days later, nagging you with meanings that remain just beyond reach.
Shot in Russia, near the Gulf of Finland, "The Return" centers on two young brothers, Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and Andrey (Vladimir Garin). They live with their mother and grandmother in a remote outpost of the collapsed Soviet empire; when we first see them, they are with a group of boys all daring each other to dive off a high tower into the chilly sea. Andrey, the elder, takes the plunge; kid brother Ivan chickens out and stays shivering on the tower out of sheer cussedness the rest of the day.
The next afternoon, their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) appears. They haven't seen him since they were toddlers, and what memories they have are really just echoes of his presence. He doesn't say where he's been, although he drops hints of unhappy times spent up north, perhaps in Siberia. Nor is he the type of warm-and-fuzzy dad who dispenses hugs like licorice. He's distant, judgmental, demanding of respect -- all the mysteries of patriarchy folded into one domineering package. The boys don't know what to make of him, but they're ecstatic he's back.
Their joy doesn't last long because he takes them on a two-day fishing trip that turns into a mesmerizing, metaphysical father-son struggle through small towns, truck stops, and into the wilderness. Dad has his own agenda -- there are clandestine phone calls and a mysterious package -- and he brooks no back talk. Of the two sons, it's the younger who rebels; Dobronravov has a face pushed in with resentment and, as Ivan, he drives his heels into the dirt and gives as bad as he gets. Andrey, angelic of countenance and hesitant of manner, only wants to please, but he, too, is driven to the breaking point by his old man's arbitrary cruelties.
Filmed with a cold, poetic beauty, "The Return" slowly strips away motivation until it arrives at a place of myth both private and oddly universal. The cinematography by Mikhail Krichman takes advantage of the region's wide horizons and angled sunlight to create a specific, elemental world, and Andrey Dergachyov's score is low and insistent, like an undertow. But the movie belongs to director Zvyagintsev and his cast, and when the shockingly casual climax comes -- as we know it must -- it is they who take it beyond the biblical into the primal. "The Return" is a startling, frustrating first feature, and one that lingers long.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.