(Originally posted on 13 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
One unique characteristic of cinema is its ability to truly capture faces. Few sweeping vistas or computer-generated marvels can match a close-up of an interesting face. Ever since D.W. Griffith trained his camera on Lillian Gish, close-ups have been central to cinematic language. But while most filmmakers take them for granted and use them lazily, a few exploit close-ups to their highest potential. One of the great recent films in this respect is Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son. As with much of Sokurov’s work, this film has very little in the way of narrative. It's a cinematic tone poem.
The characters in Father and Son live in a large port city (Sokurov shot exteriors in both Lisbon and St. Petersburg), together at home, with no mother or other siblings in the picture. From the film’s opening scene, in which the father holds his twenty-something son Aleksei to comfort him after a bad dream, their father-son relationship seems much closer than most. Many viewers will brace themselves for undercurrents of incest.
But Sokurov isn’t interested in realism. Instead, Father and Son manifests the characters' relationship physically rather than delving into their psychology. Father and son care deeply for each other, and in the absence of any other family they’ve grown to rely on each other. The father cares for Aleksei and dotes on him, while Aleksei is devoted to his father. Ever since his father’s recent health scare, he has only grown closer to his father.
Compare this to a scene in which Aleksei, a soldier by training, meets his girlfriend (also unnamed) at the barracks. Instead of having them in a room together, Sokurov places one on each side of a window that is cracked open. Sokurov’s direction of this scene makes it a masterful exploration of their faces. The actors in the scene, Aleksei Nejmyshev as Aleksei and Marina Zasukhina as the girlfriend, appear to have been cast for their physical appearances — he’s rugged yet boyish and she’s an ethereal beauty. As the camera surveys the contours of their faces, the actors move back and forth along the window as the camera pans back and forth to keep them within the frame.
The effect is intoxicating. So many filmmakers keep both the camera and the actor stationary in close-ups, probably so as not to distract from the dialogue. The movement draws attention back to the actors’ faces and the emotions they project, and serves to heighten the intimacy of the scene. Because nothing is standing still within the scene, the audience becomes rapt rather than complacent.
Yet there’s also the matter of the window, forever between them. Aleksei and his girlfriend draw close to each other, but despite the intimacy of the moment, they never touch. Likewise, as their faces move back and forth across the window, we never actually see an unobstructed view of the girlfriend’s face. Either she’s behind the glass itself, or her face is partially covered by the window frame. The conversation they have concerns the cooling of their love for each other ("You are seeing someone else." "Think what you like."), but the blocking framing in this scene makes the dialogue practically redundant. This scene sums up Sokurov’s primary theme in Father and Son — youthful romance is but a fleeting moment, while the love between father and son is eternal.