Ivan, the younger brother played by Ivan Dobronravov, confronts Russia’s past personified by his returning father.
A World Without a “White Tiger”? The Geopolitics of Zvyagintsev’s “The Return”
Continuing the discussion of Russian films with geopolitical themes, one cannot overlook Zvyagintsev’s 2003 “The Return”. Zvyagintsev who recently made headlines with his Oscar-nominated “Leviathan”, presents a starkly different view of the international environment in which Russia exists. To the extent that there is a difference of opinion in Russia as to what path the country ought to take, it is dictated by different perceptions of the international environment. Does Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger still exist, awaiting an opportune moment to pounce? Zvyagintsev clearly does not share that concern.
The movie is a story of two brothers, the younger Ivan who grew up without really knowing his father, and the older Andrey who does remember him and even has fond memories of him, and their reactions to their father’s return.
The Father is a personification of the Soviet system. As skilled a moviemaker Zvyagintsev is, he makes that point in an almost crude fashion. How do we know the Father is the Soviet system, and his return symbolizes a return to authoritarianism in the Putin-era Russia? We quickly learn the Father was gone for 12 years (the movie came out in 2003–you can do the math…), he wears a red shirt, drives a red car, and even has his two sons drink red wine, to which the older son takes with enthusiasm while the younger son displays considerable hesitation which will carry over to all of his interactions with the Father.
And interactions there will be, because the Father decides to take his two sons on a journey to, as we’ll eventually discover, recover something buried in the past (what that is we’ll never know for reasons explained later) and also to teach the two sons a thing or two about life.
But it just so happens that the Father has a very specific view on life, conditioned by his 12 years apparently spent in prison (that part is not mentioned but heavily implied by details like his aversion to eating fish, a staple of Russian prison diet) which leads him to believe that his sons need to be hardened in order to be able to withstand the life’s stresses and dangers.
It is that emphasis on exposing his children to adversity that leads to conflict with, especially, the younger son Ivan and the eventual death of the Father. Here the geopolitical message of the movie is hiding. Ivan simply does not believe the world is a dangerous place, he wants to be left alone and fish (in fact, he seems to be amazingly good at it), an apparent reference to the neoliberal model of Russian economic development which, given Russia’s factor of production endowments, will gravitate toward over-reliance on natural resources. Incidentally, Ivan’s prowess at fishing is in contrast with the Father’s skill with all things mechanical, a clear reference to the Soviet industrial past.
However, ultimately it is Ivan’s implied belief in the world’s essentially peaceful nature that makes him unwilling to accept the discipline the Father seeks to impose on him. The conflict eventually boils over into outright violence when the two sons, at Ivan’s instigation, go off on their own to fish in violation of the Father’s explicit instructions to the contrary. So here we have to ask the question: was the Father wrong to issue such instructions? Would Ivan be willing to defy his father if he also believed that the “White Tiger” was lurking somewhere on that island? What is remarkable about the movie is that Zvyagintsev, seemingly unwittingly, undermines his own message, because at an earlier stage in the movie the two brothers are mugged by a street gang, and only the Father’s very forceful intervention ensures the money is returned. Or did Zvyagintsev mean to imply the scuffle with the street gang would have never taken place had the Father not dragged his two sons on his journey?
Here, I suspect, is the crucial difference between Zvyagintsev and Russia’s liberal opposition and the Putin-led Russian government. Even after the Father locates the assailants and has his sons confront them, they still refuse to strike back against their oppressors. Ultimately Zvyagintsev’s portrayal of “ideal” Russia is of a country which allows itself to be victimized with no fear of retaliation, and which pursues an isolationist foreign policy. If anything, it serves to confirm the notion that’s already widespread in Russia that the liberals are unfit to govern that country. As if to underscore it, the movie ends with the two brothers about to drive their father’s car, car which they have never driven before, all the way back to their home town. The buried treasure that the Father brought the two sons with him to recover from that distant island is resting on the bottom of the lake.
“The Return” is available on youtube, though without subtitles.