Here maybe is the sign of a well-made cinematic allegory: Watching The Return, you're never sure whether its makers contemplated Russian history and were reminded of a painfully reunited family, or whether thoughts of such a family suggested the dizzying dislocations of Russia's past.
Either interpretation works in this taut, beautiful work from Andrey Zvyagintsev, an especially remarkable feature film considering that it's his first. It opens on adolescent Vanya and his slightly older brother, Andrey, who argue and scrap but are united in shock at the sudden reappearance of their father. He left them and their mother 12 years earlier, and now without explanation he's back and stalking about their modest, concrete-block house like he owns the place.
The father (played by Konstantin Lavronenko) is a gruffly quiet sort, grizzled, with a dented nose and a middleweight boxer's build, hair and beard going iron gray. Absent any visible rapport with their mother, a world-worn blonde, he plans a fishing trip, ostensibly to bond with his boys. But while curly-haired Andrey's (Vladimir Garin) eyes widen with something like awe in the presence of the old man, insecure, troubled Vanya (Ivan Dobronavov) turns off: His lips set tighter, his chin thrusts out petulantly, and his own eyes look ready to launch artillery. Their two-day car trip deep into the countryside turns into a test of wills, a dubious bonding experience and an ill-fated adventure.
Initially, the most striking thing about The Return is the Siberia-born Zvyagintsev's visual sense. Just when you think he's shown you every angle on a scene, he explores a new one, and it's just as evocative as the last; he makes a breathtaking composition out of elements as stark as the opening's scene's jetty, diving tower and swath of lake, where a pack of boys dare each other to drop two stories into the chilly water.
Working from a script by Vladimir Noiseenko and Alexander Novototsky, Zvyagintsev keep proving his eye, but as the film progresses what's more engrossing are the characters' psychological mechanics and how they might mirror Russia's own domestic strife, its history of strongman leaders thrust upon a burdened populace. "Where did he come from?" the boys ask. Was their mysterious father an air force pilot, or a mobster? Later, they ask him, "Why did you come?" and "What do you need us for?" The otherwise unnamed father insists his sons call him "dad" (Vanya refuses), but toggles between acts of kindness and scorn for his progeny. He's like a capricious god of large but not limitless power whose authority they are nonetheless forbidden to question. "If you weren't so evil I could love you like a father!" Vanya accuses.
While the elegant visuals, minimal number of characters and setting in Russia's vast, largely uninhabited hinterlands suggest comparisons with his countryman Tarkovsky, Zvyagintsev's film also recalls another post-perestroika film about a dubious father figure, Pavel Chukhrai's The Thief (1997). Chukhrai's 1950s-set allegory is explicit: A fatherless young boy watches as an army officer with a Stalin tattoo wins over his vulnerable mother and bends them to a life of crime. In its filial triangle of need and betrayal, The Return is more emotionally layered, and its historical resonances more cryptic. The father gets the family's bright red old station wagon up and running, but it's hard to see him neatly representing anything so obvious as, say, the rebirth of pro-Soviet sentiment. He feels more like a symbol of some distant, not always unkindly paternal power -- simply, in other words, like a certain kind of father.
Enhancing its standing as allegory (rather than straight drama), The Return remains deliberately silent on important plot points, not least among them why the father left his family and what he was up to for 12 years. Zvyagintsev, focused on the story's present, keeps the narrative lean as desperation even through a series of feints that suggest a predictable climax, but don't deliver it -- until at last they do.
Lavronenko's enigmatic performance as the father is magnetic; less is more as you wait for him to give away something about this character, but he remains nearly as unknowable as a sphinx. Young Dobronravov's turn as Vanya feels a bit flat -- his repertoire of facial expressions doesn't expand with the film's emotional landscape -- but that's partly by comparison with Garin, who as Andrey is an open book and an eloquent one at that.
The Return concludes with a touch of magical realism that feels just out of place enough to provoke further thought about history and memory. It's also enough to leave us wondering at Vanya's question when Andrey tells him they must listen to their father because he's a grown-up: "Are we short of grown-ups?" In Russian, with subtitles.