"There is more emotion, a great salty wave of the stuff, on show in the opening scene of “The Return” than in the whole of “Distant.” A group of kids clamber to the top of a wooden tower and launch themselves into the chilly water below. The youngest boy, Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), is too chicken, or too wise, to jump, and he stays up there, shaking with cold and shame, until his mother climbs up and folds him in her arms. It is not often that you feel drained after ten minutes in a cinema, so how to account for the gusts of love and fear that sweep across this small Russian picture? Well, it is the first film to be directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, and what it shares with other coruscating débuts, from “The Four Hundred Blows” to “Badlands,” is a sense that it had to be made. There is a controlled wildness at the heart of such movies, whose narratives ask to be handled as delicately as explosives.
"Eleven-year-old Ivan and his teen-age brother, Andrey (Vladimir Garin), live with their ravishing mother, as well as their unspeaking grandmother, in a house that feels as serene as a monastery and as barren as a jail. Into this peaceful setup comes their father (Konstantin Lavronenko), a man with no name, returned, after eleven years, from an ordeal—war, perhaps, or exile, or imprisonment. He suits the place, having the cropped features and the ceaseless practicality of a soldier, but also the disturbing core of certainty that we associate with the devout. (He first appears foreshortened, asleep on a bed, naked from the waist up, in a straight steal from Mantegna’s “Dead Christ.”) After a rest, however, he declares that he will be taking his sons, whom he barely knows, on a fishing trip.
"Zvyagintsev is no sentimentalist, and the journey he describes is a voyage less of discovery than of bafflement, shot through with every strain of desperation—a car sucked into the mud, say, with Andrey howling at his dad for landing them in this mess and getting whacked against the side of the car. Two minutes later, though, he is radiant with triumph, having taken the wheel and driven the vehicle clear, and once again our feelings are put through a juddering mill, as if we were children ourselves. By the time the boys and their father reach a deserted island, having found a boat, recaulked it, and rowed through fog, we know that they are drifting into a showdown.
"As Andrey and Ivan play on the shore, or in the mushroom-rich forest, their father digs a hole and unearths a suitcase. Inside the case is a box, but that is as far as the movie goes in its game of Russian dolls. The box guards its secret as closely as the one that Catherine Deneuve’s client displayed, with conspiratorial pride, in “Belle de Jour,” and we are encouraged to reflect that something of consuming value to one man may be worthless to another, and that, had the boys ever opened the box, they might have tossed it overboard as trash. Forget buried treasure; their father is mystery enough, and the hold that he exerts on them, in his twin guise of tyrant and teacher, will be burned into their young souls like the image on a photographic plate. If there is a murmur of allegory here, of the Russia that was ruled with unsmiling rigor for seventy years or so—as brief, in historical terms, as the scorched and stormy week experienced by Ivan and Andrey—then Zvyagintsev is too smart and subtle to press the point. Decide for yourself, but be quick: “The Return” is now in mid-run at Lincoln Plaza, and you must seek it out before it leaves town. "