As intriguing openings go, the first eight minutes of Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Banishment [Izgnanie] are a low key winner. Carefully composed and lingering scope-framed shots of a car travelling first down country roads and then through industrial landscapes, set to a modulating minimalist score, are brought to a sharp halt when the vehicle suddenly brakes at a rail crossing to avoid hitting a passing train. As rain starts to fall we get our first glimpse of the occupant of the vehicle, who tightens the belt tied round his left arm in the manner of a heroin user readying a fix. It could well be the aspect ratio of the image, coupled with our natural tendency to look at faces first, that was responsible for me not immediately realising that the man is actually trying to stem the flow of blood from his injured left arm. On arriving at his destination, he is met by a second man who strips him of his jacket (ouch) and exposes the extent of his wound. The helper suggests that he call a doctor, but the weary victim is having none of it, calmly requesting instead that he "poke around and take the bullet out." The man does as he is asked, and in the brief conversation that takes place during the preparations for this makeshift operation we surmise that the two are brothers, and that they have probably not seen each other for some time. The injured man is Mark, and the cause of his wound his never explained. His brother, we later discover, is named Alex.
The next morning Alex sets off with his wife Vera and his two children, Kir and Eva, to his late father's house in the country, and Mark has effectively dropped out of the story, at least for now. It's a sedate train journey – only Vera doesn't sleep – and the house is located in a seemingly idyllic spot, the perfect place for a family to relax and forget their everyday worries. So why are we convinced from the moment they arrive that something is just not right here? The filmmaking itself contributes to this – exquisitely framed and lit but coolly observational cinematography and a countryside quiet that seems almost deafening – and there's a whiff of nervousness to Vera that suggests something is deeply troubling her, which quickly comes to a head when a brief conversation about salad where her daughter reduces her to inexplicable tears. A short while later we get our answer when she confesses to Alex that she's pregnant, but that the child is not his.
From this point on the film settles into a groove that is consistently interesting rather than captivating, as the tension between the couple bubbles and briefly explodes and the illusion of normality is kept up for the kids and visiting friends. Alex never asks who the child's father is, but is provided with a sizeable clue when Kir tells him about a surprise visit paid to Mum by uncle Robert. It's a conversation that takes place as Alex drives to meet up with Mark, who he has called for advice on what he should do. Mark is very matter-of-fact about the situation – if you want to kill someone, well you know where the pistol is, otherwise you learn to forgive.
By this point you're starting to suspect that things are not going to be quite as complex as the film's ominous tone and minimal dialogue have earlier suggested. After all, tales of couples dealing with the consequences of infidelity are not exactly a rarity in European cinema, which the French and Belgian locations make this film feel a part of. But like it's opening scene, the film's approach to character detail and storytelling is laced with intrigue, and tantalisingly favours suggestion over explanation. We can assume Mark's involvement with the criminal underworld from his bullet wound, dodgy connections and easy way with money, but it is never openly confirmed or discussed. The extent of his influence, meanwhile, can be gauged not from his direct actions, but the ease with which he is able to bring in outsiders to help with family issues and cover up any suggestion of wrongdoing. He is also able to silence argument on the part of one character with the quiet reminder, "You owe me."
Alex, on the other hand, appears on the surface to be a normal family man who just happens to have a criminal for a brother, but there are hints that he also has a darker back-story. His lack of panic at his brother's bullet wound and the ease with which he complies with Mark's request for help imply that this is no virgin experience for him, and there's a suggestion that his involvement in Mark's affairs might have have run deeper when his own wife guardedly says "I know what you and Mark do for a living." Or does she? Whatever he may have done once, Alex now gratefully accepts money from Mark and turns to him first for advice and help, but has clearly no desire to walk the same path. Offered the above-mentioned choice regarding the news of Eva's pregnancy, his desire to kill is suppressed by his fear of the consequences for his family. "I don't want to lose my kids like you," he says to Mark, a comment that prompts a typically ambiguous reaction from his brother: "I didn't lose my kids," he says unemotionally, "I just got myself used to the idea that they don't exist." It's this texturing and ambiguity of character detail that gives a familiar-seeming story an edge that separates it from its European or American brethren (and believe me, I've only skimmed the surface of the suggestive character detail you'll find here).
But then, with two quietly spoken words that prompted me to sit-up sharply and wonder just where the story was going to go from there, everything changes. It's a narrative twist that presents a problem for critical discussion, as not only does it alter the direction of the story, it also forces a re-evaluation of much of what has gone before, the back-story to which is revealed in a slow trickle of discovery and flashback. But to reveal it or the events of its build-up would be unfair and inappropriate.
What unfolds, and what you come to realise has been unfolding all along, is a compelling examination of the consequences of communication breakdown. The tragedy of Alex's developing situation is that his actions are driven largely not by what he knows but what is being withheld from him, both by Vera and at one crucial point Mark. As before it's left to us to reason why, with Vera's confession to a friend regarding the child's father raising as many questions as it resolves, while a letter that Mark withholds from his brother seems almost designed to prompt him into criminal action, the reasons for which you'll have to see the film to fathom, at least if serious spoilers are to be avoided here.
What the last hour most effectively does is complete a jigsaw that is comprised of far more pieces than the first half has led us to believe, resulting in a haunting and meticulously realised work whose considerable emotional power comes from a slow build rather than any on-screen histrionics or musical signposting. Mikhail Krichman's scope cinematography is frequently stunning, not least in the breathtaking dolly shot that follows rainwater as it trickles over farmland and through a barn, coming to rest on the reflection of the house in which the story unfolds, an image of temporary stability that is then shattered by fresh rainfall. The performances are as low-key as the handling, but most effectively so, with Konstantin Lavronenko bagging the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role as Alex, though for my money it's Maria Bonnevie who grabs the real honours as Vera, her below-the-surface pain achingly evident and her tears of despair, when they do appear, upsettingly and untidily real.
Director Zvyagintsev, of course, was previously responsible for the 2003 The Return [Vozvrashcheniye], a masterful and beautifully performed drama in which an absent father (also played by Konstantin Lavronenko) suddenly reappears to take his two young sons on a trip on which they will be transformed from boys into men. The general opinion has been that The Banishment falls a little short of the high standard set by this internationally acclaimed debut feature, and for the first half I was willing to concede that this may be the case – I was gripped, for sure, but not to the degree that The Return had held me. By the end I had experienced a major rethink. The Banishment may initially require more patience than its predecessor, but the character detail, the imagery, the subtle performances and the precise use of sound all texture even the smallest moments. Every element is given new meaning by the direction the film takes in its final hour, culminating in a multi-layered reverse of the opening car journey and a final shot that literally sings to the strength and suffering of women. It's a boldly confident ending to a haunting, impeccably handled second feature, and one that should have all eyes on just what Zvyagintsev will do for an encore.
A pristine 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that does Mikhail Krichman's fabulous cinematography proud. Contrast, colour and sharpness are all rather lovely, and the picture upscales as well as any DVD in my collection. Even a shot of the house in early morning mist – a notoriously tough test for digital transfers – shows no sign of compression artefacts.
The usual Artificial Eye options of Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround are present, and once again it's the 5.1 that wins the prizes. Both have a lovely clarity and precision to the sound effects, but the more inclusive nature of 5.1 really brings the soundtrack to life – the wind in the reeds as Alex and Mark have their in-car chat is good on the stereo track but gorgeous on the surround, and the bass on car engines and thunderclaps is also superior here.
An Interview with director Andrey Zvyagintsev (18:47)
A busy interview in which the director briefly outlines his slow journey from actor to director (a ten year process whose key turning point was a viewing of Antonioni's L'Aventura), the meticulous process of designing, building and fitting the house that most of the action takes placein and around, and the decision to relocate the novel's California location to a non-specific one of the filmmaker's creation. He also outlines his approach to art and cinema, which he assures us "deal mainly with images rather than direct statements," adding tellingly that "The beauty of the image is its uncertainty – it gives you a vague sensation of approaching the truth." Works for me.
Theatrical Trailer (2:07)
An effective enough Russian trailer that thankfully doesn't give too much away. It does have a sober but rather charmingly old-fashioned voice-over that describes the film as "the pride of Russian cinema" and assures us that it will be opening on 4th October "at the country's best cinemas."
A beautifully constructed but consistently low-key drama on the consequences communication breakdown within the family, and one that most effectively wrong-foots you in the first half on how the story is going to play out. Not too many extras on Artificial Eye's DVD, but given the length of the film and the quality of the transfer, I'm not complaining. Highly recommended.