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Of sons and fathers

"Shwaas", India's entry for the Oscars, spotlights a child. Here GOWRI RAMNARAYAN talks about two exciting competitors from Russia and Italy at IFFI 2004, which also focus on children.

Poignant, but not despairing: "The House Keys".

ONCE in a long while comes a film that takes your breath away by its sheer beauty, power, emotional charge and originality. Siberian-born Andrei Zvyagintsev's debut film "The Return" (Russia) has more of the ineffable quality we call mystique. The director trusts intuition, his own and the viewer's, to communicate what is left unsaid, unshown, unexplained.

Two children and an adult: Their interactions on a drive through remote towns of north western Russia, and a boat journey to a lone Edenish island, create haunting allegory. The film adopts the child's perspective, and we too must become children, reacting instinctively to the image, not reasoning from cause and effect. What medium can do it better than cinema?

Strewn with clues

We meet the sons first. Older Andrei, happy in his neighbourhood gang, taunts the younger brother for his "cowardice" in not being able to climb high or dive into the sea. The mother comforts shivering, sobbing Vanya. The "prodigal" father returns after a mysterious absence of 12 years. He pulls the children out of the feminine world into the brutally masculine. He takes them on a fishing trip, a cover for some nefarious "business". What is it? We can only sense, never know. The film strews clues — sound-mute phone calls, meetings with accomplices, transfer of unknown goods — all watched by Vanya through the glass, or binoculars. The father shows his contempt for the sons' lack of manliness. But Andrei admires his strength. Vanya is suspicious. The more vicious the father, the more Vanya defies him. Even being abandoned on a bridge during a storm does not cow his spirit. On the island, the father unearths a box and hides it in the boat. What does it contain? We are never to know.

Such menacing moments alternate with those of uncanny beauty the silhouette of two boys fishing, backs to the camera, their diary entries by torchlight in the dark tent, their bubbling joy in an abandoned vessel off the island. We know that we are on the brink of tragedy as the child runs into the woods, climbs the high look out post, forgetting fear in rage. The pursuing father's head appears above the edge...

Winner of the Golden Lion (Venice), and Oscar entry in the Foreign Films category, "The Return", uses Biblical motifs with a disturbing twist. Like great poetry, it shapes a meta-language of signs, sounds and echoes. The meanings shuffle across many levels, some streaking away beyond vision, leaving tantalising traces of ominousness. As the music glides into moods, the camera paints with eerie lights. There is editing wizardry here, the pace drums agonising suspense. For this writer, attending the International Film Festival of India (2004), became worthwhile with just this single film. How could so much be imagined with so little?

Enough to arrest

IFFI 2004 had its share of poor films, but there were enough to interest, even to arrest. Another Oscar entry "The House Keys" (Dir: Gianni Amelio/Italy) focused on a wholly different first encounter between father and son. As in "The Return", the youngster amazed. The film is equally seamless, and devoid of artifice, pretence. It could uplift, without a self-conscious message.

Gianni's (Kim Rossi Stuart) smashing good looks make a startling contrast with severely disadvantaged son Paolo's bespectacled face and awkward gait.

A difficult birth had caused his mother's death and his own disabilities. Abandoned by the stricken father, Paolo had been brought up in his mother's home.

Married now and with an infant son, Gianni is asked to take Paolo to a Berlin clinic for treatment. He is forced to confront his guilt in deserting his son, and what fatherhood means. Their train journey is fraught with uncertainties for Gianni. He doesn't even know how to help his son put his shirt on. Paolo instructs his father matter-of-factly.

At the clinic, the alien language (German) underscores the painful process of the treatment. Strangely, touchingly, Paolo is more at ease and in control. He obeys uncomplainingly. With tubes and knobs all over his body he tells his father "Go away!" As he is taught to walk, the relentless, harsh instructions overwhelm Gianni. He disrupts the lesson, hugs the child, displeasing the therapists by his emotional outburst. Paolo is unfazed by both reactions.

Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), another patient's mother, is surprised to see Paolo in the father's care. Her husband will not take responsibility towards their daughter, who is more disadvantaged than Paolo. She has totally devoted herself to the child's care. Nicole helps Gianni understand his own failings, limitations. Rampling's low-key sensitivity infuses a life-affirming energy into the story. There is poignancy here, untouched by despair.

Genuine emotion

Paolo's dauntless spirit, twinkling humour, and innocence, make Gianni long to make the child a part of his own home, and try to make up for the lost years. Luminous music (Franco Piersanti) and camera (Luca Bigazzi) rim the tears with smiles. The director lights up the screen with genuine emotions, minus sentimentality. He pares out every frill until we reach the core. Then we know that all human joy is not only fleeting, but fragile. The theme is not new, but Gianni Amelio's telling makes it so.

"The Return" is all Slavonic gloaming. "The House Keys" is warmed by the Mediterranean sun. Both stretch the possibilities of the medium.

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