Two young brothers are taken on an adventurous "vacation" in the Russian wilds by a father they never knew in "The Return," a startling directing debut by stage thesp Andrei Zvyagintsev. One of the strongest entries in the Venice competition so far, it should be a contender for a major prize.

Two young brothers are taken on an adventurous “vacation” in the Russian wilds by a father they never knew in “The Return,” a startling directing debut by stage thesp Andrei Zvyagintsev. Constructed like an eerie, metaphorical thriller, this tense, riveting character study offers viewers nearly two hours of emotions with a stunning pay-off no one will be expecting. One of the strongest entries in the Venice competition so far, it should be a contender for a major prize.

Living in the hinterlands with their mother (Natalia Vdovina), Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and his older brother Andrei (Vladimir Garin) have a close bond. They run wild through the countryside and play chicken on a water tower, until one day their long-lost father (Konstantin Lavronenko) suddenly reappears.

If there is any explanation for where he’s been all these years, the stern-looking adults aren’t letting on. It heightens the mystery surrounding the tall, handsome man with icy eyes. Without further ado, he announces he’s taking them on a fishing trip in his car.

It is to be a mythic journey. Uncommunicative and dictatorial, father treats the kids like army recruits. While Andrei quickly knuckles under to his adult authority, little Ivan crosses his arms and refuses to take orders. Each incident is handled sternly by the father, raising the tension notch by notch as a final showdown with Ivan approaches.

After camping a night in the forest and fishing in a pristine lake, father announces it’s time to leave. His mysterious behavior and purchase of a long, heavy object bundled in cloth suggests he has a score to settle with someone. Script cleverly leaves audience as much in the dark as the puzzled and increasingly frightened boys. When father leaves whining Ivan on the roadside, only coming back for him in the midst of a downpour, the boy rebels against being “tortured.” The man seems sensitive to his protests, and it’s hard to tell how potentially violent he really is. What’s clear is that he’s bringing his sons on a dangerous quest. A shocking dramatic twist ushers in film’s final, sober movement.

The expressive faces of young thesps Dobronravov and Garin, who both have acting experience, conjure up the shifting emotions of childhood’s end. (Tragically, the 15-year-old thesp Garin died in a swimming accident soon after shooting of film ended.) In contrast to their realistic perfs, Lavronenko is an impenetrable mask of adult secrets, a larger-than-life figure associated with Biblical and other myths.

Like most of the outstanding recent films from Russia, “The Return” is inseparable from its striking visuals; its mysterious resonance is constructed largely by the brooding cinematography of Mikhail Krichman, who shot Vera Storozheva’s “Sky. Plane. Girl.” His photography of nature — clouds, forests, water, rain — has a disturbing lyricism. Camera movements create a scary atmosphere of foreboding, in tandem with Andrei Dergachev’s sinister original score. Vladimir Mogilevsky is credited with the energetic editing that eliminates all but the bare essentials.

The Return

Russia

Production

A REN TV production. (International sales: Intercinema Art Agency, Moscow.) Produced by Dmitri Lesnevsky. Executive producer, Elena Kovaleva. Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev. Screenplay, Vladimir Moiseenko, Alexandre Novototsky.

Crew

Camera (color), Mikhail Krichman; editor, Vladimir Mogilevsky; music, Andrei Dergachev; production designer, Janna Pakhomova; costume designer, Anna Barthuly; sound (Dolby), Andrei Khudyakov. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 2003. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Ivan - Ivan Dobronravov Andrei - Vladimir Garin Father - Konstantin Lavronenko Mother - Natalia Vdovina
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