Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Writer: Sergei Potepalov
Stars: Andrei Shchetinin, Aleksei Neymyshev,Aleksandr Razbash
We shall probably never find a festival where all the ratings favour the film that will win the main award. But the award of the FIPRESCI award to Sokurov’s Father and Son for the ‘masterful cinematography and inventive storytelling in describing an intense bond between father and son’ opinions diverged. Journalists rated the film rather low in the everyday ratings of films, giving it overall the comment ‘not liked at all’ or ‘a little’, and only a third of the journalists liked it a lot (followed by liking a film passionately and being in love with it). So there, Sokurov did not fare too well.
Father and Son portrays the relationship between father and his child, only the child is already a young man starting his military training. Yet from the beginning, showing the father embracing his son and the son clinging on to the father’s chest, Sokurov fails to address the process of maturing, denying the boy Aleksei a life of his own, and making him an ‘eternal’ child. The father (Andrei Shetinin) is overprotective, he is both a father and a mother figure, in the absence of a female character. He inhibits Alexei’s personal life and his ability to form a relationship with a girl: the woman is seen only through a window, and later from the balcony; she is an object beyond physical reach. On the wall in the boy’s room there is a picture of a sportswoman exercising her muscles. Woman as a figure that tries to resemble man is the only known female presence in the father’s apartment.
The Father observes his son at the military training to take pride in his offspring. He is too caring for the boy to develop: ‘A Father’s love crucifies, son’s love lets himself be crucified’. In his dreams, therefore, Aleksei kills his father in an attempt to cut himself free from the family ties, a natural process, but his father physically prevents him from such an escape and declares his dreams as terrifying nightmares, of which the boy must be afraid: in fact, these dreams are representative of the boy’s wish for independence and sexual awakening. Only the boy Kolia, who is visiting, and the neighbour Sasha are temporarily admitted into the household.
Sasha wants to be part of the family, but is only next to them.
Reviewed by Birgit Beumers in KinoKultura
Writing a synopsis is always an act of interpretation, deciding what is and isn’t essential to the meaning of a film, but writing a synopsis of a Sokurov film is more like an act of exegesis. Not that Sokurov is religiose – on the contrary, he’s much less in thrall to holy writ than his beloved Tarkovsky was – but he routinely clouds his work in the kind of mystification that makes it seem obscure to many viewers. This may or may not be a quintessentially Russian trait, but it’s certainly designed to boost the work’s aesthetic weight. Father and Son, which begins and ends in its characters’ dreams, goes out of its way to avoid obviousness. It takes place in a city of the mind (actually a composite of Lisbon and St Petersburg) and uses an idiosyncratic film language and grammar to minimise the sense that a story is being told and maximise the flavour of symbolism and parable. Under this barrage of aestheticism, though, beats a heart of pure soap opera. Sokurov provided next to no real-world context for the dying mother and her adoring son in Mother and Son (Mat i syn, 1997, the first part of his projected trilogy about family relations), but Father and Son is in some ways very specific. It takes place more or less now (the suicidal mission that traumatised the father’s air force comrade Kolya happened in 1998, although the script typically refrains from mentioning Chechnya) and the dialogue provides fairly extensive and credible backstories for both protagonists. The shadow of death hangs over the unnamed father – his chest x-rays are twice brandished symbolically – and the son Alexei, upset at being given the push by his first girlfriend, has everything to live for. Both of them are macho, military types; the father has a brief flashback to the combat in which he was wounded, while Alexei must make do, for the moment, with the stylised combat of judo practice or death-defying horseplay with his mates on a plank stretched between upper windows. The father knows that he will eventually ‘lose’ Alexei and die; Alexei knows that he will eventually move on and ‘abandon’ his father. Sokurov is certainly smart enough to know that this schema is psychologically banal and dramatically thin; hence the need to complicate matters by ‘mythologising’ the relationship. (“Their love,” we read in the director’s notes, “cannot happen in real life. It’s the incarnation of a fairy tale.”) In practice, this entails presenting the father as a ‘new man’, a caring, fully domesticated surrogate for his late wife, and presenting Alexei as an infantilised adolescent, still calling for his mother as he wakes from recurrent nightmares and still settling for a maternal cuddle from Dad to get him through the distress. To deflect any suspicions of incestuous homo-eroticism in the relationship, Sokurov falls back on the device favoured by all ‘buddy-movie’ scriptwriters: he counterpoints his macho leads with a ‘gay’ supporting character, the voyeuristic sissy Sasha, who is always up on the roof looking for his cat or checking the weather when father and/or son are lounging or exercising in their underwear. Sasha yearns to move in with the Big Boys,and is gently rebuffed.