Banishment, The (2007): Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return)

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere, Competition)–A tone poem about faith, desire, damaged masculinity and the tragedy of betrayal, Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsevs “The Banishment” is a visually arresting, extremely ambitious follow-up to his prize-winning 2003 debut, “The Return,” which won the Golden Lion and other major prizes at the Venice Film Festival.

“The Return” secured Zvyagintsev a place in the front ranks of new generational Russian auteurs. He certainly inhabits the role of the Russian artist, conjuring an intense, mystical, poetic and furious exploration of the intricate emotional and blood connections of entwining families.

The filmmaker apparently wants to annihilate the very prospect of failure, of sophomore jinx. There is a superstition that the second film is always a flop, he said. Some call it a drop in energy. Vindication can only come from your work.

At 159 minutes, the movie requires extraordinary patience, and those inclined to surrender to the film’s heavy mood and elusive rhythm are bound to experience a significant revelation. Zvyagintsev is no doubt reaching to find his own language and syntax. The movie extends on the themes of “The Return,” though everything is magnified, the scope and sheer range often overpowering.

At the same time, the movie suggests a fascinating synthesis of Andrei Tarkovksys final work, “The Sacrifice,” and several Ingmar Bergman movies. This formal connection is made all the more explicit by the directors casting of Norwegian-born Maria Bonnevie, who, with her long blond hair and somber yet beautiful face, suggests an uncanny physical resemblance to the young Liv Ullmann (around “Persona” time).

The movie suffers from structural problems, but it’s also gloriously baroque, the imagery so beautiful and evocative that some of the problematic qualities of the storytelling and characterization are mitigated by the imposing reach of the visual style. The tone is more difficult to decipher. Clearly not a realistic feature, its style is more in vein of a dark dream and a haunting reverie.

Adapting William Saroyans autobiographical novel “The Laughing Matter,” Zvyagintsev works in a strangely abstract vein that withholds telling details about specific period and time. yet the architecture, type of phones and cars used inevitably suggest a story somewhat lost in time.

The serpentine structure of the script creates difficulties and rewards in equal measures, causing both admiration and frustration at characterization, narrative incident, and dramatic conflict.

Opening against a stunning shot of a windswept landscape, “The Banishment” immediately establishes a slightly off-kilter and disorienting tone. An injured man, his left arm damaged from a gun shot wound, seeks solace with another man. The gangster is Mark (Alexander Baluev), and the other man he has sought sanctuary with, Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the father in “The Return”), turns out to be his brother.

Driven away from his family by the need to make money (the presumed exile of the title, which later also assumes other meanings), Alex returns home to an eerie, almost depopulated Russian town.

Mark encourages his brother to solidify his frayed relationship with his wife (Bonnevie), and young son Kir (Maxim Shibaev) and daughter Eva (Katya Kulkina) by repatriating to the familys ancestral home left vacant after the death of their father. The gorgeous, elaborate estate is set in beautiful pastoral grounds of the Russian countryside.

With the physical shift, Zvyagintsev and his remarkable cinematographer Mikhail Krichman create some stunning tableaux that sharply contrasts the rolling and open landscapes against the more knotty and twisted geography of the adjacent forest. The filmmakers echo the great Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko (“Earth” among others), drawing out physical distinctions of wind and space to vivify a very concrete physical place.

There is one incredible shot with Alex walking through the twisted foliage of the forest, the landscape jutting diagonally across the screen. Somewhat enigmatically, purposely, the action moves vertically and side to side.

The idyll of the family retreat is quickly ruptured by Veras stunning announcement. Im going to have a child, she says. It is not yours. Hurt and angry, Alex reacts physically against Vera. He then calls his brother and insists on a meeting, but he never shows up.

Dramatically, “Banishment” undergoes a considerable shift, the perspective changing from the husband and wife to the symbiotic connection of the two brothers. The story encloses on itself, and the conflict is drawn out of the uncertain resolution of Veras physical condition and the question of whether she is going to submit to Alexs request that she terminate the pregnancy.

The movies title is also a metaphor for the vast separation of the central couple. We are strangers to each other, she says. The conflict yields a highly unpredictable finale, which sharply entwines tragedy and irony. The conclusion also illustrates the movies principal failing, namely, that the superiority and dominance of the imagery produces a work almost at war with itself. The glorious and exciting visual style, sound, and score are somehow lessened by the helmer’s inability to deepen or sharpen the interior and emotional consciousness of his characters.

That said, every time I was about to give up on the film, Zvyagintsev restored my faith by subverting the dramatic line. In the best example, the movies sexual politics, that appear originally to be quite reactionary by presenting a woman being punished for her transgressions, turn out to far more complicated by a revealing and wholly unexpected final act flashback that provides the necessary psychological depth of Vera’s figure.

Zvyagintsev sometimes lacks the necessary rigor and concentration in shaping his work more organically. The narrative is sometimes too amorphous and slack, and the intensity of the conflict feels forestalled and even enervated.

“Banishment” was actually shot in Moldova, France and Belgium, and that untraditional locations heighten the movies strange sense of displacement and the unfathomable. In the last hour, the movie devolves into a series of interlocking puzzles.

Zvyagintsev provides no easy answers, and the resolution of several pressing questions remains unanswered and lets the spectator fill in the blanks. He shows faith in his audience to make their own conclusions. And as bleak as the movie is, it actually ends with a ray of hope, with a lyrical scene depicting a collective of female farmers singing while working the land.

The director’s answers might not be terribly reassuring, but theres no doubt about the intensity of feeling or depth of passion.


Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko)
Vera (Maria Bonnevie)
Mark (Alexander Baluev)
Kir (Maxim Shibaev)
Eva (Katya Kulkina)
Robert (Dmitry Ulianov)
Max (Alexey Vertkov)


Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev
Screenplay: Oleg Negin, Andrei Zvyaguntsev, Artem Melkumjan, based on a story by: William Saroyan
Producers: Dmitri Lesnevsky
Executive producer: Elena Loginova
Director of photography: Mikhail Krichman
Production designer: Andrey Ponkratov
Music: Andrey Dergachev, Arvo Part
Costume designer: Anna Barthuly
Editor: Anna Mass

Running time — 159 minutes