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Movie Review: "The Return"

It's not often that a Russian film will even come to the US, much less get theatrical release, but this one got such good reviews that I decided it was worth a try.

This film is playing at the Music Box Theatre, a thirties-style old-fashioned movie theater with the little twinkling lights on the ceiling that make you feel like you're sitting outside -- and if you haven't been there you really should experience a film somewhere that's not one of the cookie-cutter, 200-seat megaplex boxes.

The plot of this film is as simple and spare as the film style and dialogue. Two adolescent boys (one appears to be about 16, the other 13 or so, but it's never made clear) live in a small town somewhere in Russia, with their mother and grandmother. The father left 12 years ago, and one day after the boys are out playing, the father is simply "there". He's "sleeping", according to the mother, and the scene in which the boys first view him sleeping, is a portent of a scene much later in the film, which I will not reveal.

Suddenly, the father insists on taking the boys on a fishing trip. They are excited, but the father doesn't really seem to know much about fishing, or taking trips with boys -- there are scenes where he appears to treat them with great cruelty, and others where he genuinely teaches them things about being in the outdoors.

It's never really made clear why the father was gone, but we suspect sinister motives, particularly when he leaves the boys alone to make a phone call (which we cannot hear), and they are robbed of the wallet the father has left them with. They get it back, and lessons are learned by everyone, including the father. I got the impression that the 12 years were spent in prison.

Eventually they wind up on an island, where the boys actually do some fishing and the father is up to something. He goes to an abandoned building and retrieves a mysterious box that has been hidden there. Roger Ebert's review of this film says that the boys witness him doing this, but I didn't see that, and if they had done that, I'm certain they would have retrieved the box later, after something that I won't reveal occurs.

Every shot in this film has been composed with great care. There are shots of the grandmother, who has no lines and is referred to after we see her only once, which convey the idea that she has seen great tragedy in her life. There are shots of the two boys that say the same, as well as others that show the bond that is obvious between them, that they have had to grow up pretty much by themselves, without a father, though they do have great love for their mother, who we do not see again after they leave for the fishing trip.

Much is left unanswered by the ending, and normally that would bother me, but unlike many American films, this film actually makes you think about what's happened, a great credit to the director, Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Well worth seeing, though it's not in wide release and you'll probably have to rent it.

AYRating: *** 1/2