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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Andrei Zvyagintsev

This article contains spoilers

You wait for years, then two come along one behind the other. I mean, you know Soviet/Russian cinema produced some of the most exciting cinema ever conceived, but since the end of Soviet Communism, we’ve been waiting. Then Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return burst on our consciousness in 2003; he completes The Banishment in 2007, which goes to DVD in December 2008. So, two extraordinary films have come along one behind the other.

The Banishment confirms Zvyagintsev’s sense of visual style, already manifested in The Return, not just long stretches that are wordless, but even in the patches of dialogue, a sparsity of words that could be said to be overwhelmed by the abundance of the image. Mainly we have to go on Alex’s face, an archetype of the suppressed, non-communicating male in both films (played by Konstantin Lavronenko in both), and in both striving to build a relationship with the family around him. And in both films, the astonishing effect of the almost complete removal of bystanders: the protagonist’s car has the road to itself; the streets are empty of people. In The Return, the island where the father and his two sons holiday is an actual isolation from humanity. In The Banishment, the isolation is created by Zvyagintsev’s direction; hence astonishment at the very end at the appearance of haymakers singing in the fields, quite unheralded.

Kieslowski is in the background, in the way Zvyagintsev establishes our expectations then turns them round in the course of the film, a favoured dramatic device in several Kieslowski films. Zvyagintsev also draws on Tarkovsky’s inheritance, in the gravity of his shot lengths, in the travelling camera, in his love of rain and water teetering on the edge of being a symbol of grace. More precisely, Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice (1987), is a prior version of The Banishment. In it Alexander vows to give up everything, home and family, even his sanity, if that will save the world from some unspecified apocalypse of war, perhaps nuclear. Zvyagintsev’s version puts less in the balance: Vera’s sacrifice seeks to save Alex and his family rather than the world. The film is therefore about atonement and resurrection – and after Vera’s death I expected her to come back to life, like Inger in Dreyer’s resurrection film Ordet. That doesn’t happen, but a filmic device does something analogous. After we see the spring that had been dry flowing again (“in the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountains start” – WH Auden), there is a reversion to a past narrative, not a flashback memory in Alex or Robert, but a back story revealed by Vera’s letter to Alex which he discovers subsequent to her death. This explains the meaning of Vera’s words to Alex at the beginning, when she said, ‘I am carrying a child but it is not yours’, which the past narrative reveals as meaning, ‘It is your child, but your emotional isolation from your family means that it is not yours.’ Listening to the words we feel tricked, but understanding the structure of the images, their weight and their sequencing, gives a profounder sense of the atonement that enables life to be renewed. In an interview, Zvyagintsev has said, ‘An image is always a mystery,’ and, ‘The beauty of an image is in its uncertainty.’ As happens with opera, where the sung words make meaning specific while the music communicates different meanings, reinforcing or contradicting, so in a film like The Banishment, the words may have a certain meaning that the images overwhelm by their uncertainty, or by conveying a ‘mysterious certainty’.

A further link with Tarkovsky and Kieslowski is in Zvyagintsev’s use of the New Testament passage, 1 Corinthians 13, on the nature of love: this text is referred to in both Andrei Rublev and Three Colours Blue, as a ‘commentary’ on the story they are telling, while in The Banishment it is used by the wife of Alex’s friend as a bedtime story for the children (some story!). If ever I write ‘Son of Filmmakers Guide to God’, Zvyagintsev will receive star billing. [Zvyagintsev discussed as member of School of Tarkovsky in my NEW FILMGOER'S GUIDE TO GOD published in 2014.]

© Tim Cawkwell 2009

The jigsaw the children do is of 'The Annunciation' by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verocchio