Sokurov's From Russia With Man-Love
By Fernando F. Croce

In this age when the media's interest in homosexuality scarcely extends beyond queer-eye, is-he-or-isn't-he winks, it's no surprise that so many critics have tried to pigeonholed Father and Son as a "gay movie," much to the irritation of its creator, Russian director Alexander Sokurov. (Repeatedly asked about his latest effort's alleged homoeroticism last year at Cannes, he reportedly tsk-tsked a roomful of journalists on how dirty-minded their side of the globe has become.) Either way, the label has stuck (it had its first U.S. showing at the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last May), but the film is hardly a queer work in the sense that pictures by Fassbinder, Warhol or Jarman are queer works, though those artists' influence is apparent in the first shot: heavy breathing against a black screen, followed by close shots of intertwined, sinewy male limbs.

The opening suggests man-love, though its eroticism is spiritual -- the Father (Andrey Schetinin) comforts his Son (Aleksey Neymyshev) after a nightmare, and Sokurov frames the sculptured bodies as soft-edged, amber-toned pietàs, the first example of both the auteur's painterly visual style and his questioning of established notions of masculinity. Reductive as it may be, the gay interpretation is more than understandable -- ruggedly handsome Schetinin and teenage-dreamy Neymyshev are strapping specimens, photographed ethereally in all their shirtless splendor, gazing into each other's peepers and caressing each other's faces when not lifting weights on their building's rooftops. The film further fans the flames by grounding the sliver of a plot upon jealousy and separation anxiety, as the arrival of a bereft young buddy, left behind by his own dad, threatens to push Father and Son apart.

Sokurov's images of beautiful guys horsing around and exchanging bear hugs make people squirm because they present the eroticization of male flesh without the mediation of the female gaze, since the contemplation of male beauty in mainstream cinema can only be kosher after it's been filtered through a woman's eyes. Save for Neymyshev's duplicitous girlfriend, women are rarely seen in Father and Son, yet the film is the most feminized of Sokurov's works. Or, to be more exact, the one where such qualities as tenderness, grace and delicacy, normally filed by society under "feminine," are allowed to roam and bleed into such "masculine" ideals as virility, aggression, and stamina. Touch bridges the two. While the characters' energies find an acceptably "male" channel in the military touch exercises the Son participates in, the intimacy of feeling between the two men remains just as bound to an intense physicality that, through Sokurov's purist handling, strips the visuals of any prurience, straight or homo, and makes them exalted, the spiritual turned flesh, tangible.

It's fascinating to compare the film to Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return, another Russian import also dealing with father-son relations. Zvyagintsev shares with Sokurov a painterly sensibility (the estranged father's first appearance sprawled in bed recalls Mantegna's Dead Christ) and a preoccupation with Nature (absent in Father and Son, except for glimpses in dreams), though his movie's boot-camp itinerary is far more conventional than Sokurov's, with the father's abusive behavior torturing his standoffish sons only to be sentimentally celebrated at the end. Looking back, I believe Zvyagintsev has a paternal relationship of his own to deal with, namely with Andrei Tarkovsky, that grand albatross wrapped around the neck of every young Russian artist. The Return is full of allusions to the late genius, and the characters' ambiguous relationship may mirror the director's with his ghostly father figure, with the movie a way of both acknowledging and exorcizing his presence. Equally mysterious but far more autonomous, Father and Son drenches its opacity in a depth of expression that lifts the familial relationship onto a cosmic plane.

Moviegoers who know Sokurov only from the crowd-pleasing technique of Russian Ark have no ideal what a demanding director he is. Though that picture's one-camera-movement-through-the-ages extravaganza forged a wondrous anti-montage statement that Hitchcock, Ophüls, Rossellini and Preminger would have killed for, the stunt flattened the complexities of both Russian history and the filmmaker's own art. Sokurov's follow-up is a return to the profound transcendentalism of Second Circle and Mother and Son (to which the new movie plays companion piece), works of overwhelming aural-visual emotion where the loss of a parent equals nothing less than the death of the world. Like those films, Father and Son challenges and maddens, its liquidity of image and thought dovetailing into the deepest well of emotion. "A father's love crucifies. A loving son lets himself be crucified," says Neymyshev, bringing the film's Biblical dimension to the fore. His later comment cuts even closer to the bone: "This is my father. And he is my friend. I love him very much." A statement of breathtaking simplicity in a film of breathtaking complexity.

*

Quite a few rungs below in the artistic meter is Napoleon Dynamite, this year's freakazoid cult movie wannabe. A hit with the Sundance crowd, Jared Hess' low-budget wedgie is being palmed off as a liberating revenge-of-the-nerds regional romp, with the eponymous gangling mouth-breather (Jon Heder) and his equally geeky entourage emerging triumphant over macho-jock insensitivity in his tiny Idaho town. Don't believe the hype -- this comes straight from the Todd Solondz school of gawking-at-the-freaks-while-faking-compassion, with no humor, warmth or horror to humanize the unappetizing gallery of slack-jawed losers. Napoleon fights with his brother (Aaron Ruell), feeds his pet llama, and wins the school election for his best pal (Efren Ramirez) via an elaborately dorky dance sequence; throughout, Hess' style is less deadpan than simply comatose. Torturously unfunny, Napoleon Dynamite is bound to find a following with viewers who delight in the kind of derisive chortling it is more than happy to supply, though it would benefit from some of the clear-eyed critique Mike Judge brought to Beavis and Butthead.

Reviewed June 24, 2004.


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