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The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2007)

I wasn't a fan of The Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Golden Lion-winning debut film, but it had its ardent admirers, which raised expectations for The Banishment, his second, considerably. Unfortunately, it's tough to imagine that even Zvyagintsev's biggest fans will fully embrace this leaden, empty-headed misfire. Things start promisingly, with an expertly shot sequence in which a car races from the country to the city. As soon as the film's family-driven drama becomes clear, however, the accomplished widescreen lensing emerges as the only real asset. Almost embarrassingly portentous, the plot mostly concerns the aftermath that occurs when a wife reveals to her husband that she's carrying a baby that's not his.

Konstantin Lavronenko, who plays Alex, the husband, inexplicably won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year. His performance is almost entirely interior, but seemingly devoid of depth. Combined with a script that doesn't ever adequately flesh out his (or anyone's) character, the impression that he most often gives on screen is that of a man thoughtlessly staring off into empty space. The film fares better as visual feat than drama, to be sure. Two shots, which happen to be the two most striking in the film, are fully indebted to Tarkovsky. The first explicitly recalls the extended, behind-the-car tracking shot in Solaris, while the second, which is a long camera track looking into a mud puddle, seems to nod toward similar shots in Stalker.

Much like Tarkovsky, Zvyagintsev also fills his work with Christian symbolism, pushing the story vaguely into the realm of allegory. Unfortunately, the effect is more heavy-handed and reductive than a way to deepen the resonance of the ultimate tragedy. Crosses dot composition frequently, and in one moment that's far too on the nose for its own good, a young girl reads a passage from the Bible on the importance of love, giving the film a moral that totally reduces the potential audience response to character actions. Furthermore, since the character behaviors are psychologically implausible in the extreme and because the plot is predicated upon inane contrivances, The Banishment fails to connect even on a surface level. For now, the best that can be said about Zvyagintsev is that he seems like he could potentially be a master filmmaker someday, even if he's still not made a good movie.


Jeremy Heilman