Producers: Brigita Rozenbrika, Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior Director: Peeter Rebane Screenplay: Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior Cast: Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii, Diana Pozharskaya, Margus Prangel, Nicholas Woodeson, Jake Thomas Henderson, Kaspar Velberg and Ester Kuntu Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Think of one of those glossily sappy romantic triangle movies Warner Bros. made in the 1940s, with their inevitably weepy endings. Then relocate it to a Soviet airbase in Estonia and have two of the three principals be gay men. That’s “Firebird,” a heartfelt but crushingly clichéd period piece about the suppression of the love that dare not speak its name in an authoritarian environment.
The fact that the film feels so false is particularly sad because it’s based on the story of an actual person, Sergey Fetisov, who in the nineties published a memoir about his love affair with a fighter pilot named Roman, which began when he was a private serving his two-year tour of duty at the base in 1977. The on-base part of their relationship was rather brief, as Roman arrived shortly before Sergey’s tour ended and he won admission to a drama school in Moscow. But they resumed it later, even after Roman had married their mutual friend and comrade Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), who, as her sideways glances at her friends showed early on, was always suspicious of them but was truly devastated when she eventually found out, too late, about the depth of their relationship.
How closely the screenplay, which director Peeter Rebane initiated after reading Fetisov’s work (published under a pseudonym) and then completed in collaboration with Tom Prior, who plays Sergey, mirrors the actual events must be left to others. The two were in contact with Fetisov, but that doesn’t mean dramatic license isn’t involved at least to some extent.
In any event, what emerges on the screen is a parade of scenes that are either blandly pretty, like stills in slick magazines, or crudely melodramatic. (There are also, of course, occasional impressionistic flashbacks to Sergey’s swims with a childhood friend years before.) The matinee-idol good looks of both Prior and Zagorodnii, combined with their stiffness and Rebane’s penchant for playing things at a solemn pace designed to emphasize the seriousness of it all, accentuates the sense of artificiality. The scenes of Sergey’s study at the dramatic academy, complete with almost hilariously bad rehearsals of scenes from classic plays, offers not an inkling of thespian talent, and even a sequence in which one of Roman’s flights threatens to end disastrously brings no real sense of danger. Pozharskaya is somewhat more convincing as the woman Roman uses to conceal his true love, though not by much.
Worst of all, though, are the appearances of Margus Prangel as the odious Major Zverev, who gets an anonymous report about the “special relationship” between Sergey and Roman and never lets the matter drop. He periodically shows up like some malevolent Mephistopheles or indefatigable Javert, usually swathed in shadow and puffing on a cigarette, a constant reminder of ever-vigilant state power ready to pounce at a time when homosexuality was a crime in the Soviet Union. He even shows up at the end of the final credits crawl to remind us that though the law was changed in 1993, under Putin a prohibition on “homosexual propaganda” has been reinstated.
There are some incidental pleasures to be gleaned from “Firebird.” Nicholas Woodeson combines severity and geniality as Colonel Kuznetsov, the base commander who unwittingly throws Sergey and Roman together by making the younger man the recently-arrived pilot’s aide. The locations are interesting, and if you like a glossy look, the cinematography by Mait Mäekivi is excellent. Tambet Tasuja’s editing is rather phlegmatic, but that’s mostly a factor of Rebane’s stolid pacing, and the score by Krzysztof Aleksander Janczak can go mushy, especially with the interpolation of excerpts from Tchaikovsky, but overall the picture is visually attractive.
“Firebird” does put an unusual spin on a gay coming-out tale, and for some that may be enough. But Sergey’s story called for more subtle, nuanced treatment.
The title, incidentally, is a reference to Stravinsky’s ballet, a performance of which that Sergey attends with Roman being a key moment in the beginning of their romance.