Firebird is playing in cinemas nationwide from April 22nd.
Two boys swim in a deep blue lake, but while one boy finds his way back to the light, the other slowly falls, the shimmering blue world slowly turning to black as he descends. 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 trying to keep their heads above water in an ocean of rules, oppression and state control. However, in a country where the state reigns supreme and privileges are controlled, their journey will engulf those around them – their secret love a potential weapon as the weight of rumour, responsibilities, and marriage takes hold.
READ MORE: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
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. The Cold War is in full swing as 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 at odds 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 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, but love is born when Roman allows their relationship to move beyond pure friendship. Here their clandestine meetings burn with passion and risk as both men skirt the possibility of prison and ostracism – the precarious position of their newfound love further heightened by rumours on the base. 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
When Sergey leaves the base to pursue an acting career in Moscow, he leaves his heart with Roman. Here his new life of passion, artistic freedom and friendship is 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.
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 from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in private, the words act as a personal turning point in his journey to self-acceptance. Here the text enables 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 when 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.
READ MORE: DRAMARAMA
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.