By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Director Alexander Sokurov scored a massive critical hit with his 2002 film "Russian Ark," a beautiful experiment that pulls off the longest single take in the history of film, but also succeeds as a masterful meditation on art and history. Even mainstream critics who had never heard of Sokurov raved about the film.
I had heard of Sokurov, but had never managed to see any of his films before "Russian Ark." Even so, I suspected that "Russian Ark" had been a departure for him, a kind of side project to pass the time between his "real" films.
Indeed, "Father and Son" has very little to do with the sensation of Russian Ark , and I'm told it also has little or no connection to Sokurov's 1997 film "Mother and Son," other than a common cast member.
The film has no real plot, but follows Alexei, a young man who lives with his father (Aleksey Neymyshev) and attends military school. His father is a former military man, still in good shape and very handsome. He enjoys working out shirtless in the snow. They argue and ask each other questions that never get answered. Eventually another character turns up who is apparently searching for his own father, also a military man.
"Father and Son" seriously struggles out of the starting gate, playing not unlike a "Saturday Night Live" parody of an art film. In one scene, the son of the title converses with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend through the slats of a window. The two players keep shifting back and forth, obscuring parts of their faces behind the wooden slats. Is this art, or is it just silly?
Likewise, when the son, Alexei (Andrey Schetinin) goes home to his father's house, they stand a little too close, gazing into each other's eyes. They act, by turns, like lovers, brothers and occasionally, as father and son.
The opening scene reeks of arthouse cliche. Over darkness and opening credits, we hear struggling and heavy breathing, suggesting sex. When we finally get a glimpse, we slowly realize that the father has awakened the son from a nightmare and is calming him down by holding him. (Sokurov has chastised some American critics for seeing sex in the film where there is none.)
"Father and Son" is definitely a puzzle, and frankly I was about to walk out on it before it drastically improved. It's a disjointed baffler of a movie that works because its few moments of brilliance come close to the beauties inherent in "Russian Ark." It's easy to forgive the missed opportunities once these great moments come.
The film really comes to life in its use of light and weather and space. The two men live on a rooftop apartment and they use the adjoining roof as part of their living space. They bound out onto a narrow board that bridges the two buildings as if it were a simple hallway. They horse around on the high roof, playing ball, totally unaware of the height. Sokurov manages to equate this elevated, open space to the men's relationship in a way that really works. We finally understand the dizzy, euphoric relationship these men share.
Almost everything in "Father and Son" is left unanswered. But those few moments in which messy, messy art folds together into something great make the film impossible to dismiss.
*** out of ****
(83m | NR)