Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii, Diana Pozharskaya, Jake Thomas Henderson
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… achingly romantic …
Based on a memoir written by Sergey Fetisov, Peeter Rebane’s Firebird is an achingly romantic tale of gay love set in Soviet occupied Estonia and the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.
Tom Prior (who co-writes) plays Sergey Serebrennikov, a young cadet in his last few weeks of military service. He suffers under the harsh regime of training and spends his spare time photographing small moments of fleeting beauty. He has made two friends on the base, the rowdy Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) and clerical officer Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya). There is the assumption that Sergey and Luisa will end up together, but Sergey’s repressed desires lie elsewhere.
When handsome officer Roman Matvejev (Oleg Zagorodnii) arrives to take up his new posting, the attraction Sergey feels for him is immediate. Like Sergey, Roman has an interest in photography, and also like Sergey, he is a closeted gay man.
When Sergey is assigned to act as a kind of valet for Roman, the attraction deepens. Small glances become imbued with a sense of intense longing. Moments between the men are charged with sexual tension but they both must be wary, as a five-year prison sentence awaits if they are caught together in any manner that the military deems unseemly.
Co-writer/director Rebane deftly conveys the men’s desire for one another using techniques best ascribed to the romantic melodrama genre. When at last their romance is consummated, the intimacy of the act is filmed with a glamour that speaks of not only a long-awaited release, but also of profound beauty.
Encouraged by Roman to move to Moscow after he finishes his service, Sergey leaves his lover. Their parting is not amicable, as an anonymous report on Roman’s conduct has put him at great risk of losing his commission. In a world where every moment is watched and reported on, Roman decides the risk is too great and coldly breaks contact with Sergey.
A few years pass and Sergey has entered the more progressive world of theatre training in Moscow – a place in which his sexuality can be given more (if incomplete) expression. Roman once again enters his life, this time with the news that he is marrying Luisa. The attraction between the two men has not diminished – they are deeply in love, but Roman has chosen his career as a fighter pilot over his love for Sergey. In a back-and-forth tussle, the men will come together and move apart. As much as we desire their love to succeed, the pervading sense of fatalism that comes from a relationship forged under an oppressive and homophobic regime, is always present.
Although the budget is somewhat lacking on the film, Rebane makes the most of his resources. Filming in a glorious manner that relies heavily on light and shadow and spaces as metaphors for the characters’ dilemmas, the director and production team have done a marvellous job of summoning an aesthetic that illuminates both the oppressiveness of the military but also of the overwhelming freedom Sergey and Roman experience as they leave the cold Soviet world behind and exist in the magic moments where their love is able to subsist unhindered by the real world they’ve temporarily left behind.
Where the film falters in part is the script. There are many elements that appear to be pulled directly from other works. Although few pieces of cinema can be seen as wholly original, the audience may feel an over-familiarity with certain tropes. Also, because of the international cast, the accents seem to slip more than once. Small but clumsy breaks in continuity are also a problem. A more seasoned director would probably have tightened up some of the sloppier elements, but as it stands, most of the flaws of the film are forgivable because of the power of the love story on which it is built.
A co-production between Estonia and the United Kingdom, Firebird is particularly timely in an era where Russia and some adjacent territories have become increasingly regressive in their treatment of LGBTQ+ people. There is also the awareness that the Russian military complex is once again seeking to expand Russia’s territories with its invasion of Ukraine. Marketed in part as “The film Putin doesn’t want you to see”, Firebird is precisely the film audiences should be seeing.
Screening only on Tuesday May 17 at select locations in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide & Hobart in celebration of INTERNATIONAL DAY AGAINST HOMOPHOBIA, TRANSPHOBIA & BIPHOBIA