Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Reflective Film ‘The Return’ Leads Viewer Deeper In Faith

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published May 26, 2011

I am often depressed by the speed at which new media emerges and disappears. We know about books, films and recordings often months before they appear, and many of us frequently consume and forget them even before they find their way into the traditional marketplace. The enchantment, the anticipation and the mystery of waiting for new work—and the joy of absorbing it carefully, of having time to treasure it alone and with others—seem increasingly to be pleasures of a pre-digital past.

Besides the loss of introspection and appreciation, one other crucial casualty of the rate and volume of the new media onslaught is our ability to recall those works that are truly worthy of preservation and remembrance.

A key aim of the commentaries in this series has been an invitation to explore some great Catholic works from the past century that merit both rediscovery and the appreciation of a new audience.

This month, I want to introduce to you—before it too perhaps fades into the pop-culture abyss—one of the most beautiful and provocative films of the past decade: Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Vozvrashchenie,” or translated from the Russian, “The Return.”

“The Return,” released in 2003, was the young Russian filmmaker’s first feature film, and it was immediately recognized as something very special. It is a film that challenges the viewer to abandon his faith in the literal and embrace instead the mythical, the metaphorical and the spiritual. It rejects conventions of genre, renounces safe assumptions about the familiar, and abandons traditional patterns of narrative. In doing so, it becomes one of those rare films that resonates with the viewer long after it is over and invites continued re-viewings, each one of which seems to offer new insights.

SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication that was formed in part by the absorption of the old International Catholic Organization for Cinema (OCIC), awarded the film a special jury prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival. That the film also won the prestigious Golden Lion at that same venerable festival is actually more surprising than the SIGNIS honor; “The Return” is a film deeply rooted in Christian spirituality, and the viewer of faith—like the SIGNIS jury—should recognize this immediately.

Zvyagintsev leads an almost reclusive life, and he has usually refused any invitations to speak about what “The Return” means. As he has said, “One shouldn’t speak out loud about sacral and important meanings because as soon as we start blabbering about them, all that is magic and sacral immediately evaporates.” And yet, he also acknowledges that “the film is a mythological outlook on human life. … The film has gripped something in the air which influences people, grips their souls. Cinema for me is a spiritual effort.”

The plot of the film seems simple. In the summer of the midnight sun, two teenage brothers come home one afternoon to find that their father, who has been missing for 12 years, has returned. Their first sight of him occurs as he lies sleeping, in a shot that echoes almost exactly the Mantegna painting “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ.” To ascertain his identity, the boys rush to the attic where they find photographs of the father tucked in amongst the pages of what appears to be an illustrated Old Testament; the most revealing photograph is found juxtaposed against an image of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. Upon the father’s awakening, he assembles the family for a meal that alludes to the Last Supper. The next day, the father and the boys leave for what is supposed to be a fishing trip. Then, in a fascinating and confounding series of scenes that work primarily because of their use of silence and tension, the film surges toward an ambiguous and unforgettable conclusion.

I’ll not spoil what happens in the film, but I will provide some context. Besides the Christian references I mention above, there are allusions to several of the New Testament miracles, including Christ’s walking on water, the calming of the storm, the feeding of the 5,000, and the fishing miracle following St. John’s account of the Resurrection. There are references to the Emmaus story, and the Crucifixion, and several of the parables, including those of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.

Most of all, the film explores the complex relationship between fathers and sons, and as this specific union attains the level of metaphor, it becomes clear that what Zvyagintsev is really expressing is the more profound relationship between God and humanity.

The film’s treatment of this relationship is challenging. The sons, who desperately need a father figure, demand a response from their prodigal father, who offers no explanations for the strange twists their journey takes. That the boys assume he should speak to them, that the younger son especially requires a dialogue and an explanation, indicates as much about faith and belief as it does neglected children.

Within the religious subtext of the film, the boys express a full range of human attitudes toward God: awe and wonder, doubt and dismay, hope and love, and anger. The father rarely responds, however, and when he does he usually appears ambivalent, even cruel, until the end of the film when it appears the entire return and journey has been a sacrificial act to educate, enrage and ultimately engage his sons.

We often think of the silence of God in despair, but in “The Return,” the silence of the father seems positive because it forces a reaction and promotes responsibility from the children. In rarely speaking to his sons, the father compels the sons to speak to him. His actions, and inactions, force a response from the boys. In short, the father teaches his sons, and the implication is that the responsibility for communion lies also with them.

While it explores the relationship between God and his people, the film also addresses the nature of quest, or pilgrimage, the crucial avenue by which we discover God. “The Return” toys with the form and style of the thriller genre, but the slow pace of the film exaggerates a false suspense that is only made clear by the end.

“The Return” is a testament to the power of a predominantly silent, transcendental cinema. In its consideration of the phenomenon of presence in absence, it also affirms the possibility for redemption and the enduring, mysterious power of God’s love and our desire to know that love.

It is one recent work that deserves not to be forgotten.