It is hardly a coincidence that, a decade or so after the USSR had collapsed and Russia had come in from the cold, the nation's filmmakers should begin to show an interest in the generation gap dividing post-glasnost children from their pre-glasnost parents. In 2003 alone, three otherwise very different Russian films all turned their attention to the father-son relationship. For if Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return and Alexander Sokurov's Father And Son both show characters trying to bury the horrors of the past while moving on to an uncertain future, so too does Boris Khlebikov and Alexei Popogrebsky's debut Koktebel.

As winter approaches, a father (Igor Chernevich) and his 11-year-old son (Gleb Puskepalis) travel, mostly on foot, through the Ukraine. The man was once an aeronautics engineer, but lost his job and ultimately his Moscow home after his wife died and alcoholism set in. Now they are heading for a small town called Koktebel on the Crimean coast, where the father hopes for a new life with his sister, and where the son dreams of flight, albatrosses and the sea. Yet the father seems content to take his time, and as a variety of dangers and distractions impede their progress - a railwayman (Evgenii Sytyi) and his teenaged daughter (Vera Sandrykina), a dacha-owning dipsomaniac (Vladimir Kucherenko), an accommodating female doctor (Agrippina Steklova) and a bellowing carnivore of a truck driver (Aleksandr Ilyin), the son begins to wonder if they will ever reach Koktebel - or indeed if it even exists.

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Koktebel is a land-bound riff on Homer's Odyssey, with its intoxicating potions, its focus on a son's rites of passage into adulthood, its monstrous men and its seductive women - one of whom is named Kseniia, from the Ancient Greek word for the guest-host relationship, a key Odyssean theme. Yet here the father and son are not so much returning home as trying to build a new one on the foundations of Russia's history, in a terra incognita where values, and even names, have changed.

First-time cinematographer, Shandor Berkeshi films landscapes of forest, plains or sea in hauntingly static wide shots which threaten to swallow whole the two anonymous travelers who wander through them, underscoring what is at stake in the conflict between a child's drive to keep moving forward and an adult's desire to settle into oblivion.

There is little dialogue but it is replaced by minute, sometimes funny, observations of character, with looks and gestures counting far more than words - and the two leads seem simply to live their parts, offering nuanced performances where love, guilt and disenchantment are made tangible without any resort to histrionics or melodrama. Yet the final, wordless scene, in which two characters sit together (almost as though in a cinema) facing an infinite horizon of hope and disappointment, resonates with an immense emotional intensity and complexity, making this low-key road movie a journey well worth taking.

Reviewed on: 11 Jan 2011
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A father and son's relationship is explored on a road trip.
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Director: Boris Khlebnikov, Aleksei Popogrebsky

Writer: Boris Khlebnikov, Aleksei Popogrebsky

Starring: Gleb Puskepalis, Igor Chernevich, Evgenii Sytyi, Vera Sandrykinav Vladimir Kucherenko, Agrippina Steklova, Aleksandr Ilyin, Anna Frolovtseva

Year: 2003

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Russia


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