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The Banishment

Izgnanie (The Banishment) - Andrei Zvyagintsev (2007)

This is the (personally) long awaited second feature from the russian director Zvyagintsev whose debut Vozvrashcheniye aka The Return won a plethora of awards in 2003 and is by my account one of the best films of the new millennium. It features the same lead actor as in The Return, Konstantin Lavronenko, who plays Alex, the father of two children and apparently a man mixed up in some "shady" business (this is implied more than explicitly stated). He decides to take his wife and children to his old house in the Russian countryside for a vacation. Soon after their arrival, his wife Vera breaks the illusion by announcing that she's pregnant but the child is not Alex's.

Let me begin by saying that this film was a huge disappointment. Obviously I'm a massive fan of The return so my expectations were enormous. Judging by the opening scenes, it seemed like Zvyagintsev had made another spectacular film; it opens with a beautiful wide shot of a car blazing through the Russian country side and into the rundown, post industrial, somewhat post apocalyptic Russian town (the scene of the car going through the town is somewhat reminiscent of Tarkovsky's Solarys). Driving it is Alex's wounded brother Mark, who is shot and needs Alex to help him. This beautifully shot intro is accompanied by some incredible, cold and atmospheric music, just like in The return.

Unlike The return however, where Lavronenko was perfect as the mysterious and ominous looking father, whose unpredictability kept you on edge throughout the film, the mystery surrounding Alex is lost in the utter shallow blandness of his character. He doesn't say or do much after the shocking news delivered by his wife, in fact, none of them do much in the first 90 minutes of the film except brood and look pensive. The two lead characters show and incredible (and frustrating) inability to communicate even the simplest of things, let alone resolve this obviously major turn of events. Instead of using this spectacular setting for an electrifying drama, Zvyagintsev chooses to bore us with irrelevant side characters and inconsequential distractions (such as the rather comic end of Alex's brother Mark). The painful dreariness of the plot (or the lack thereof) is somewhat relieved by the spectacular shots of the pastoral Russian countryside ( in the vein of Malick's Days of heaven). Sadly, I'd say the photography is pretty much the only redeeming aspect of this film.

It livens up a bit in the final stretch but by this time the incredibly uneventful (or shall we say "slow") development makes the final part of the film awkwardly out of sync with the tone and pacing of the previous hour and a half. Even if it does shed some light into the private universe of Vera, his wife, and the events that lead to a tragic ending, it's all too little, too late...and too unconvincing to salvage it.

(1.5 of which is due to the photography)