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 turning black as he descends. No matter how hard he kicks and paddles, the lake is too powerful and 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.
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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. 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. Their clandestine meetings burn with passion and risk as both men skirt the possibility of prison – 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, who loves Sergey dearly but struggles to identify his feelings, remaining a close friend.
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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 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.
Firebird is painted in vivid 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 stark white, grey and pale green, highlighting its oppressive, sterile conformity. This use of colour cleverly signals both the internal and external emotions and environmental factors surrounding Rebane’s sweeping love story, creating a personal, vivid and engaging space for the viewer. But it’s the outstanding and engaging performances of Prior, Zagorodnii and Pozharskaya that make this story of trepidation and forbidden love shine.
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However, Firebird struggles to fully embrace Luisa’s story and her place at the heart of Sergey and Roman’s secret romance. Equally, the runtime never allows for a full-bodied exploration of the political environment surrounding Roman, Sergey and Luisa and the risk factors that impact a love triangle where all parties ultimately lose. But, while Firebird may not quite reach the dramatic heights of Moffie or And Then We Danced, it does focus our attention on historical inequalities that haunted same-sex love in Cold War Russia and urgent conversations on what has changed. For LGBTQ+ people in Russia, oppression and control continue to destroy lives, and freedom remains under a blanket of restrictions and intimidation. Firebird is a call for change and a beautiful exploration of love found only to be kept hidden for decades in fear of reprisal.