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Russia: Film Wins Golden Lion At Venice Film Festival

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev has won this year's Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for "The Return" -- his first feature-length movie. International critics are hailing Zvyagintsev's film, comparing it to works by legendary director Andrei Tarkovsky. "The Return" is one of several recent Russian films to win broad acclaim, signaling a comeback for the Russian film industry.

Prague, 8 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The announcers stumbled over his name. But for the second year in a row, it was a Russian filmmaker who took home the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

International jurors on 6 September crowned Andrei Zvyagintsev's movie "The Return" with their highest honor, the Golden Lion award.

What makes "The Return's" win even more impressive is that it marks Zvyaginstev's debut production on the big screen. The former theater actor and television producer, born in 1964, has thus been instantly catapulted into the ranks of Russia's great directors such as Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovksy, who are also past Venice laureates.

Many Russian film critics, overjoyed at Zvyagintsev's achievement, say "The Return" is proof that Russian cinema has staged a comeback after years of decline. Foreign critics were equally enthusiastic about the film, moved by its very Russian lyricism, conveyed in the performances of the three main characters and the beautiful cinematography.

Nick James, editor in chief of Britain's leading film magazine, "Sight and Sound," just flew back from Venice and shared his impressions of the movie with RFE/RL.

"It's a very deserved winner. I think the combination of a really pure piece of storytelling -- which had many resonant metaphorical dimensions that you could read into it -- with some stunning cinematography and great performances from all three of the leads, made it for me one of the very best films at the festival," James says.

"The Return" tells the story of a father's reacquaintance with his two sons after an absence of 12 years. The father, played by Konstantin Lavronenko, takes his two now-teenage boys on a trip to an island where the three characters attempt to renew their relationship in an undisturbed setting.

Moscow-based film critic Kirill Razlogov tells RFE/RL that Zvyagintsev's triumph in Venice -- as well as prizes won by fellow Russian director Aleksei German Jr. and Azerbaijan's Murad Ibragimbekov -- are testimony to a resurgence in global interest in Russian-language films. Razlogov says comparisons between Zvyagintsev and the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who also dazzled Venice and won a Golden Lion in 1962 with his debut, "Ivan's Childhood," are unavoidable -- though only time will tell if they are justified.

"In my view, there is a rebirth of interest in Russian-[language filmmaking], as Aleksei German Jr.'s film also received an honorable mention and Murad Ibragimbekov won the prize for best short film. So maybe it's a rebirth in interest, maybe it's also the birth of a new great master. Only the future will tell, because the hardest task is to make your second movie after such a stunning initial success," Razlogov says.

Razlogov notes that foreign critics sometimes have different preferences than domestic audiences. He denotes at least two types of film directors in modern Russian cinematography: lyricists who continue in the classic Russian literary school, focusing on eternal themes with a poetic eye, and what he calls the "New Russian" movie makers, who focus on the chaotic, gritty post-Soviet world of money and power.

"New Russian" movies are definitely more popular with domestic audiences these days. But Razlogov says a key to "The Return's" success -- one that does not detract from its brilliance -- is the fact that the movie is imbued with a classic soulfullness that is familiar and expected by foreigners watching a Russian movie. That impression is confirmed by Nick James: "For me, the Russian qualities of it are that it's a very poetic kind of realism. It's a very realistic film, but it's a realistic film that's very open to the suggestibility of the landscape. It's a beautiful landscape film."

Adding extra poignancy to the movie is the fact that one of its three stars, 15-year-old Vladimir Garin, died shortly after the production ended, drowning in the lake where the opening scene of the movie takes place.

(RFE/RL's Pavel Butorin contributed to this report.)

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