The Sins of the Father: Andrei Zvyagintsev in Conversation

By James Norton

banishment-andrei-zvyagintsev.jpgThe Banishment, 2007

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s feature debut The Return was widely acclaimed in 2003 as the greatest Russian film of the past few years. His follow up, The Banishment, is a metaphysical film noir whose brutal protagonist, played by Konstantin Lavronenko, virtually reprising his character as the father in The Return, is confronted with his wife’s apparent infidelity, and whose crisis, as it moves from a grim industrial urban setting to a stylised rural idyll, becomes spiritual as the temporal medium thickens and slows with sublime menace. As in The Return, the drama is also a critique of the failure of violent, alienated masculinity in the face of a feminine mystery, embodied here in a luminous performance by Scandinavian actress Maria Bonnevie, possessed of a subtly devastating beauty which is apprehended by the mind before it is recognised by the eyes.

Zvyagintsev egregiously borrows from Tarkovsky, not enhancing this otherwise excellent film, but a distraction, not just for trainspotting cinephiles but as structural irregularities in the work, notably a long tracking over pools of water and buried debris culminating in a shower of rain that resolves the earth into a mirror. Elsewhere there are crepuscular promenades through birch trees and cars passing golden fields that are photocopied from Tarkovsky’s greatest hits, which is not to deny their startling beauty and technical virtuosity. Zvyagintsev says: “The Sacrifice is my favourite film. People often ask me if Tarkovsky was an influence on my filmmaking. If his films did have any influence on me, it was not in a conscious way… I think it’s impossible for any Russian film maker not to feel a certain influence coming from the work of Tarkovsky. The question is how the influence manifests itself; whether it’s just pure repetition and imitation or something deeper.”

Are these remarks merely disingenuous or themselves something deeper? Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It rarely flatters the imitator, and the imitated ought to be more sincerely flattered by a following of the example in the spirit of their works, the development of a creative vision from the wellsprings of personal experience and integrity, all qualities Zvyagintsev fortunately displays in abundance in much of his film.

Ultimately, The Banishment is redeemed by a magnificent final half-hour in which Zvyagintsev brilliantly recuts the linear chronology of the source story (William Saroyan’s ‘The Laughing Matter’) in a seamless flashback, recasting the Greek tragedy of the preceding story as an enigmatic and soulful parable. Better still, at the very end the father returns to the fields where the film began, now harvested by singing Slavic women, stepping out of the inexorable vehicle of tragedy and the deadly progress of history and into the eternal cycle of myth.

Zvyagintsev trained as an actor, and on the strength of the television thriller series Black Room, producer Dmitri Lesnevsky proposed that they make a film together, a uniquely fortunate opportunity for one with no film school training. “That’s how it happened with The Return and, when we returned from Venice with two Golden Lions under our arms, it was even easier. He said to just go and make the second film.”

banishment-andrei-zvyagintsev-2.jpgThe Banishment, 2007

The Banishment‘s locations were meticulously chosen, from the colossally sinister urban industrial works of the beginning to the haunting pastoral enclave where the family flees. The decors look like subtly chic hotels, all dark, heavy leather in the city and stripped wood in the country dacha. Both interiors and exteriors are like Western representations of massively decadent Russian originals, and this disorientation was deliberate. “We were looking for this European industrial landscape, but not a modern one, so as not to be specific about time.” They eventually found this in the mining areas of Charleroi in Belgium and Roubaix in northern France, appropriately the fatalistic setting of Zola’s Germinal – and the film has something of the pre-war poetic realism and dread of Renoir’s adaptation of La Bête Humaine.

For the rural locations, Moldova was suggested. “We found the ravine and looked around us and this was the place, as if you’re spinning the globe and blindly put your finger somewhere and go, and that’s where we built the house and the church. I remember I had the sense that this was the centre of the world, the bottom of a cup created by nature. I felt as if there was nothing beyond the hill, everything was concentrated there, metaphysically you know that’s right. We built the church on the slope of a hill then only later found out that nobody ever builds churches on a slope, and that the cemetery would never be higher than the church so that set was a complete invention.”

In both of Zvyagintsev’s films the drama occurs when the characters move away from the city or the home into the countryside and the crisis occurs in, or is caused by, ruined, abandoned man-made structures out in the wilds. “In The Return, the house where the father hides the sort of treasure was a cemetery in the script and when we were location scouting we just came across that house, which was like a living organism but dying, already turning into dust like the flesh and bones of a body.” The church and country house in The Banishment have a Gothic, expressionist look. “They were based on Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. Most of his life Wyeth spent painting the same house, an old mill, just walking round and painting it from different positions. In The Banishment the house is also a former organism which stopped living. It was a mill, there was a stream of water which was rotating the wheel, the wheel of life and then the wheel of life stopped and the stream dried up.”

The Banishment and William Saroyan’s story have complex and different constructions. The narrative involves the husband, Alex, his wife, Vera, Alex’s gangster brother Mark and another brother Robert, who has a relationship of some kind with Vera. “In Saroyan’s story Robert dies for unknown reasons and leaves a letter for Alex in which he says that Vera tried to commit suicide and he tried to save her. But the main thing in the letter was that Robert was Vera’s lover, and there’s no dialogue with Robert in Saroyan’s story. Structurally, Saroyan’s story is based on flashbacks. It starts at the moment where the family arrive at the house and in the middle of the story Alex remembers that Mark came to him wounded”, which is where the film begins.

The spectator may share the confusion of children in the film about the ambiguous relationships between the adult characters. Zvyagintsev tells an anecdote that illuminates not just the childrens’ jealousy in the film but his repeated theme of absent fathers. “I remember when I was a boy, my father left the family when I was six and at the age of ten I remember coming in to my mum’s room and she was standing with another man who I’d never seen and it was absolutely innocent but he came towards her and she stepped back and that threw me out of balance and I just came and hit him. I didn’t know who he was, and he just laughed and my mum said, “Andrei, what are you doing?” Exactly the same kind of scene, just jealousy: what’s this man doing with my mum?”

banishment-andrei-zvyagintsev-3.jpgThe Banishment, 2007

Vera is reminiscent of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot: her self-destructive innocence exposes the morals of the other characters. “I had another reference from Dostoevsky when we were filming, ‘The Meek One’. Because Marie is a very powerful, charismatic person and actress, I gave her that reference so that she should take all that inside her to become an introvert, she should become quite meek, just rely on Alex, for her character not to fight her corner. In this case Vera puts Alex in a position where he has to act and that reveals his true nature.”

There are significant references in both films to the compositions of religious paintings, notably in The Return to Mantegna’s Dead Christ and in The Banishment the children make an enormous puzzle of Leonardo’s Annunciation. Is this just a formal interest in these compositions or is a particularly Christian dimension intended? “I have an informal interest. A kind of ethical interest. There’s another reference which I’m unhappy that nobody has so far noticed. In the episode where Vera is showing the photographs, one of them reproduces a Leonardo sketch, of Anne and Mary with two small children at their feet, only in this case it’s Vera and it’s a photographic copy of Leonardo’s sketch.”

Near the end of both films there’s a sequence of black and white photographs. “Only later I noticed that there was a certain repetition. It wasn’t conscious. When I did it the second time, Vera needed to find a way into an intimate dialogue with Robert, and I had this idea that a good starting point would be the photographs she could offer him. Because very many women, when you visit them, start showing you photographs. There is a bit of an irony in there: this is my family, my parents and it also creates this intimate atmosphere.”

At the end the bereft Alex finds himself surrounded by women singing an ancient Slavic harvest dirge. “Very few people liked the ending. The film was selected for Cannes but they told us maybe remove this ending because it placed the film in a particular location while the rest of the film seemed totally universal in terms of where it was. I said it should be my own inner feeling, because if I start cutting everything that somebody doesn’t like, I’ll have to destroy most of the film. But I made three different cuts and my producer agreed that the right one was obviously that with the song, otherwise it seemed castrated.

There are lots of meanings hidden here. The film starts with this ploughed field, which at the beginning is seeded and at the end of the story it has been harvested, so it shows you the cycle of life. In church mass books, those showing the cycle of countryside life, for autumn there are pictures of these women in the fields. Life continues. Children are born. The folksong almost sounds like the heartbeat of the universe. It was very important for me to have this song at least until that moment where there is a woman with a baby. It’s sort of that child who was not born in Alex’s life, but in a way he is born. There are lots of codes in there. It’s better not to talk about it, they should be heartfelt.”

The Banishment will be released in the UK later this year.

James Norton is a writer on cinema and researcher of television arts programmes