If only the ravishing opening shot of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “The Banishment” was followed up with both beauty and something genuinely profound, then disappointment wouldn’t be so palpable. But the undeniably talented helmer’s sophomore feature has little of the emotional power of “The Return,” though d.p. Mikhail Krichman does stellar work and thesping is faultless. Influenced by Tarkovsky and heavily loaded with religious metaphors, pic’s examination of a family’s banishment from a domestic paradise that was never Eden anyway feels both indulgent and pseudo-deep, leaving auds cold rather than devastated. Theatrical play, if achieved, will be weak, especially Stateside.
Story is a rough adaptation of William Saroyan’s “The Laughing Matter” (an ironic title if ever there was one), with locations switched from California to an unspecified country kept deliberately anonymous. Mark (Alexander Baluev) drives from the country to the city, stopping to have a bullet removed from his arm by brother Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko). No specifics are given, but it’s clear Mark plays on the wrong side of the law.
Cut to Alex and wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie) taking son Kir (Maxim Shibaev) and daughter Eva (Katya Kulkina) to the countryside and his father’s old home. They seem to be a tight family with an easy physicality, though levity is nowhere to be seen. Once the kids are put to bed, Vera tells Alex she’s pregnant, and the child’s not his.
Alex’s first instinct is to call Mark, who later advises his brother that he can kill Vera or forgive her: Either one will be right. Forgiveness wins, though the price is Vera has to get rid of “it.” While the kids pass the night at a friend’s house working on a puzzle of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Annunciation,” Mark arrives home with a couple of abortionists and the deed is done. But something’s gone wrong and Alex realizes perhaps he made an error.
Earlier Vera complained to Alex that they were strangers to each other, but nowhere in the screenplay is it explained why she feels this way. In the overlong flashback coda that makes up much of the end she elaborates a bit, but the concepts remain vague and the driving forces behind people’s extreme actions stay buried under the symbolism. Much was withheld in “The Return” as well, but the force of characters, coupled with the shock of unfathomable tragedy, made for an unforgettable catharsis that’s sadly lacking here.
That Annunciation/abortionist counterpart isn’t the only piece of heavy-handed religious imagery on offer. There’s Alex washing his brother’s blood off his hands, Eva/Eve offered an apple, and a Bible recitation from 1 Corinthians about love (“It does not insist on its own way”), handily set apart by a bookmark depicting Masaccio’s “The Expulsion From the Garden of Eden.” OK, we get it, but that doesn’t mean the parallels offer a doorway into personalities who offer little emotional residue on their own.
Clearly, Zvyagintsev is interested in creating a mood piece, and luckily the remarkable lensing helps to offset the remoteness. From that first breathtaking opening image, the camera gracefully curving around a solitary tree standing out against the blue sky, there’s no doubt he’s a master of framing. Seeming to tip his hat to artists such as Corot and the Danish Romantics, he achieves astonishing results with a simple church set against a hill, or sudden torrents of water racing through the grass.
Together with lenser Kritchman they have exacting eyes for lighting, not just where it falls but what tonalities it imparts, especially the differences between light that turns silhouettes white or gold (most outdoor scenes were filmed in Moldova). Colors are vital here, helping to heighten the contrast between the grays of the city with the earthier straw hues of the fields, but also within scenes, such as Vera’s turquoise summer dress set off by cerulean walls.
Music is used sparingly, though it always signals something portentous, composed of deeply resonant notes derived from Russian Orthodox chants as well as the overly ubiquitous sounds of composer de rigueur Arvo Part.