THE BANISHMENT (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2007)

In Andrei Zvyagintsev’s suspenseful Izgnanie, from Armenian-American William Saroyan’s 1953 novel The Laughing Matter, there’s an overhead shot of five children, seated on a living-room floor, working together on an enormous jigsaw puzzle. Feverishly busy, their hands rush to complete the puzzle, which has a religious theme. While they are at work, a kitten slowly crosses a corner of the puzzle, oblivious to it and the children. The children seem possessed; the cat, self-possessed. The puzzle refers to the plot of the film; the cat, to its deliberate pace and elliptical style. The narrative engages, at least in part, precisely because things aren’t explained, causing mysteries to arise; but eventually nearly every detail of plot is nailed down. Every piece fits snugly into the puzzle.
     Aleksandr and Vera have temporarily exchanged the city for Aleks’s late father’s home in the country. Vera is expecting a third child whom she allows Aleks to believe is not his. Zvyagintsev’s film is suffused with Aleks’s rage, Vera’s sadness over the state of their marriage (Vera tells a friend, “[Aleks] loves us only for himself—like things), and their children’s incomprehension. While individual shots recall Tarkovsky, Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) seems a more pervasive influence—at least as long as the mysteries remain.
     One thing not disclosed is what Aleks does, or ever did, for a living—although it is implied he may have joined his older brother, Mark, in criminal activity of some sort. Regardless, Aleks and Mark are dearly connected, to Vera’s chagrin. Aleksandr Baluyev is phenomenal as Mark, who casually advises Aleks that if he wants to kill Vera it is the right thing to do.
     One of many brilliant shots travels inside the vacated, boarded-up country house: a burial searching for a sliver of light.

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