I assume that those that have watched this film can be divided into two camps; those that think it is an allegorical masterpiece, and those that think it is a meaningless load of old codswallop. Which camp do I belong to? Well, I’m honestly not sure. I certainly liked the film. Loved it, even. But as to its meaning, I really don’t know. Some have suggested that it is a biblical allegory, but I have no frame of reference there, so can neither confirm nor deny this. But does that make it a more successful film? Is religious symbolism inherently more worthwhile than physical actuality?
Of course when a film is as blatantly enigmatic as this, one can always project whatever meaning one wants onto the action. Is my own personal interpretation of a film more or less important than the intentions of the filmmakers? I suppose it all depends upon one’s definition of art, and this is certainly a work of art.
The film, set against a bleak and desolate landscape, beautifully photographed by Mikhail Krichman with a palette of greys and blues, revolves around a father’s (Konstantin Lavronenko) return home after an absence of twelve years, and the subsequent road trip he takes with his two sons. The eldest son, Andrei (Vladimir Garin) hangs on his every word, but the youngest son, Ivan (the remarkable Ivan Dobronravov) is more wary.
There is a scene at the beginning of the film in which a number of boys, including Ivan and Andrei, are jumping from a tower into a lake. Ivan is the only boy that is unable to find the courage to jump. He stubbornly refuses to climb down and the rest of the boys leave him there. He sits shivering until his mother comes for him the next morning. Might all that happens subsequently be his fevered dream as he sits atop the tower cursing his father for having not taught him to be a man? The film certainly does have a dreamlike quality that also, somehow, makes the father’s tough love/abusive parenting skills seem more palatable. When the father abandons Ivan at the side of the road in pouring rain for several hours, one gets the feeling that those several hours passed as quickly for the characters as they did for us the viewer. Is it all just petulant, adolescent fantasy?
If we take the film at face value, it is a beautiful and moving exploration of familial relationships, parenting, conflict, fear, and life lessons. And from that aspect alone it is a hauntingly beautiful and quite unforgettable masterpiece. So the question really is, does it actually matter whether or not there is some other underlying meaning?