Firebird – Exudes style, emotion and tenderness

8 mins read

BFI Flare presents Firebird, coming soon to cinemas.

Two boys swim in a deep blue lake, but while one boy finds his way back to the light, the other slowly descends deeper and deeper. The shimmering blue world slowly turns to black as he falls further and further into its depths. No matter how hard he kicks and paddles, the lake is too powerful and too large as the air slowly leaves his body, and he accepts he cannot win.

So opens Peeter Rebane’s Firebird, a movie exuding style, emotion and tenderness, as we follow two Russian men from 1977 to the early 1980s. Both men, trying to keep their heads above water in an ocean of rules, oppression and state control. Their only desire, the ability to rise to the surface and breathe the cool air of freedom. However, in a country where the state reigns supreme and privileges are controlled, their journey will engulf those around them, their secret love becoming a potential weapon as the weight of rumour, responsibilities, and marriage takes hold.


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Based on a true story and interviews conducted before filming, Tom Prior and Peeter Rebane’s screenplay opens on a Soviet Air Force base in Estonia in 1977. Here The Cold War is not only in full swing but gathering pace as the global nuclear arms race builds. In the confines of the base, we meet Private Sergey (Tom Prior), a young man counting down the days to his release from military service. His love of photography and literature, jarring with the toxic world of control and oppression surrounding him. However, when a daring and confident fighter pilot arrives on the base named Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), Sergey finds himself both excited and fearful of his growing attraction. His confusion, only further cemented by Roman’s interest in him and his love of photography and art.

Driven by a deep feeling of belonging in Roman’s company, Sergey slowly spends more time in his presence. And when Roman allows their relationship to move beyond pure friendship, love is born. Their clandestine meetings, burning with passion and risk as both men skirt the possibility of prison and ostracism. Their precarious position only further deepened when rumours circulate about Roman and a possible male lover. Meanwhile, at the centre of Sergey and Roman’s hidden love sits Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), secretary to the base Commander. A woman who loves Sergey dearly but struggles to identify his feelings, remaining a close friend.


Read More: Moffie – Repression, desire and social control in 80s apartheid South Africa


When Sergey leaves the base to pursue an acting career in Moscow, he leaves his heart with Roman. His new life of passion, artistic freedom and friendship, void of the one person he truly desires. Meanwhile, for Roman, his life on base requires him to protect himself and his career, and as a result, he opts to marry Luisa. A sweeping story of hidden love follows, with Sergey attempting to navigate his desire for Roman, his care for Luisa, and his new life free from the base’s regimental restrictions.

Of course, hidden love stories are nothing new in LGBTQ+ cinema, with many movies ranging from Moffie to Maurice covering similar ground. Therefore, it is often challenging for any new film in this space to find a fresh approach in either its visuals, narrative or performances. However, Firebird does manage the rare trick of standing out in a crowded landscape of films. The reason for this is two-fold, but let’s start with its cinematography.

Firebird is drenched in colour, from the deep blue of Roman and Sergey’s flirtatious bond to the warm golden glow of their first sexual encounter. In contrast, the base is painted in stark whites, greys and pale greens, highlighting its oppressive, sterile conformity. This use of colour in signalling emotion and place is outstanding in scope. But when coupled with exquisite close-ups that focus on the unspoken pain, love and hidden desire of every interaction and gesture, Firebird sings. Here Firebird creates a personal, vivid and engaging space for the viewer, one where the deepest emotions of its characters light up the screen.


READ MORE: GREAT FREEDOM


The second reason for Firebird’s success centres on the outstanding and engaging performances of Prior, Zagorodnii and Pozharskaya. With both Prior and Zagorodnii embracing the sensuality, joy, entrapment and trepidation of forbidden love. And when this is coupled with a fascinating discussion on the freedom art and literature offer in oppressive political ideologies, Firebird truly shines. For example, when Sergey recites Shakespeares Hamlet in private, the words act as a personal turning point in his journey to self-acceptance. The classic text, enabling him to question whether he wishes to allow his love to be free or eternally trapped by the state around him.

Equally, Firebird attempts to ensure Luisa’s story is not lost in Sergey and Roman’s romance. However, there are times where this needs more focus and space. And it is here where Firebird suffers its only major flaw. Unfortunately, the runtime never allows for a full-bodied exploration of the political environment surrounding Roman, Sergey and Luisa. However, despite this minor flaw, Firebird is a beautiful film that shines through its assured direction, engaging performances and cinematography.


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While Firebird may not quite reach the dramatic heights of Moffie or And Then We Danced, it does wear its heart on its sleeve. While at the same time focusing our attention on same-sex love in Cold War Russia, a time and place often neglected in LGBTQ+ storytelling. And as Firebird draws to a close, the sense of sadness and loss in Sergey and Roman’s hidden love is palpable. But this is coupled with a modern-day fear for LGBTQ+ people in Russia, where oppression and control continue to destroy lives. Here the historical restrictions and intimidation witnessed in Firebird remain firmly in place, with Sergey and Roman’s journey a continuing reality for far too many.


Tom Prior stars in Firebird (2021)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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