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February 02, 2005

Father and Son

2003.Russia.Sokurov

3.0 / 4.0

It’s easy to watch Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son and discard it as nauseatingly artsy Eurotrash. There isn’t a dominant story, and a subplot about an army man who may or may not have killed someone and may or may not be dead is as cryptic as it sounds. The two main characters (the Father and the Son) have no names and we’re not quite sure if we’re supposed to watch them or watch with them. Is their relationship creepy or loving? Add that long stretches of the already short film are of nothing happening and some viewers will conclude that Father and Son is monotony on film, disguised as art.

It’s an easy interpretation of the film, but one that’s nearsighted, while still being somewhat unintentionally accurate, and helpful in deciphering just what is going on. Father and Son is monotony on film, but it’s not a monotonous film. Going against what viewers are used to, and conditioned to concentrate on, Sokurov’s film is about not what’s happening or why it’s happening as much as it’s about how the happenings are shown. For example, the conversation between the Son and the Girl, if taken as a typical movie fare, is a throwaway exchange that neither advances plot or builds character. Hollywood would cut it. And that’s exactly Sokurov’s point. The conversation is meaningless, but the way in which it’s filmed gives it meaning. The form creates the content; the content doesn’t dictate the form. Sokurov says: Focus not on the dialogue, but on the mise-en-scene. It’s vital that the scene is shot with the two characters on opposite sides of a window, because it makes visual the invisible barrier that separates the Son from the Girl (in this case the Son’s reluctance to leave the Father). Furthermore, their faces, as filmed, are often separated by the horizontal and vertical bars that run across the glass, separating the screen into several frames, suggesting fractured states of mind. Other good examples are the multiple scenes in which the Father and Son are on the roof of their apartment building together. Sometimes they lift weights there, play soccer, or perform acrobatics. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the openness that Sokurov’s compositions and setting suggest. The dialogue between the characters doesn’t reveal as much about their relationship as the image of their figures against the sky and the shared feeling of being above the bustle of the street cars and people below.

It’s a shame that so many critics responded to the first shots of Father and Son, of the entangled, naked bodies of the Father and Son, by interpreting them as homoerotic and choosing to explore only that aspect of the film. And it’s fittingly funny that the reason the scene can be viewed as homoerotic is not because of what is happening (the Father waking the Son from a nightmare), but because of how Sokurov films and edits it. In a way, that scene is a misunderstood statement of intent, or thesis, to the rest of the film. In it, Sokurov flags up that how we see things has a huge impact on how we perceive them. Father and Son is not absorbing narrative entertainment. It's a defence of art cinema and of the director as artist. Remember the outdated argument about the auteur versus the metteur-en-scene? It’s just been updated.

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