Firebird is showing at BFI Flare now; book tickets here
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 turning 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 for this boy. The air slowly leaving his body as he accepts he cannot win, the surface too far away.
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 kicking and paddling in a deep ocean of rules, oppression and toxic state control. Their only desire to rise to the surface and breathe the cool air of freedom. However, in a country where the state reigns supreme and freedoms are strictly 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.
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 1977. The Cold War not only in full swing but gathering pace as the global nuclear arms race builds. Here, 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 Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) arrives on the base; a daring, confident fighter pilot. Sergey finds himself both excited yet fearful of his growing feelings. Roman actively welcoming him into his apartment while sharing 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 social ostracism. Their precarious position only further deepened when rumours begin to 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.
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, lacking the one person he truly desires. However, for Roman, his life on base requires him to protect himself and his career. And it is not long before Sergey learns of Roman’s intention to marry Luisa. In turn, creating a love triangle full of risk, potential pain and conflict. What follows is a sweeping story of hidden love, with Sergey attempting to navigate his desire for Roman, his love 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 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 two-fold, but let’s start with the cinematography.
Firebird is drenched in luscious colour, from the deep blue of Roman and Sergey’s flirtatious bond to the warm gold glow of sex as they finally become one. The base drenched in stark white, grey and pale green, highlighting its oppressive, sterile conformity. This use of colour in signalling emotion, place and purpose is also matched by exquisite close up shots, each focusing on the unspoken pain, love and joy held in a single look. And when this use of colour and close up merge, Firebird creates a personal, vivid and engaging space for the viewer.
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, Sergey reciting Shakespeares Hamlet in private acts 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 eternaly trapped by the state around him.
Equally, Firebird is to be commended for ensuring Luisa’s story is not lost in Sergey and Roman’s journey, even though the film needed more time to explore this fully. And it is here where Firebird suffers its only major flaw. The runtime never allowing for a full-bodied exploration of the political environment surrounding Roman, Sergey and Luisa. In turn, never fully embracing its historical roots or wider critique of the Russian LGBTQ+ journey. However, Firebird is undoubtedly a beautiful film that shines through its assured direction, engaging performances and superb cinematography.
While Firebird may not reach the dramatic heights of Moffie or And Then We Danced, it does wear its heart on its sleeve throughout. While at the same time focusing 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 is palpable. After all, despite a brief period of renewed hope for LGBTQ+ people in Russia, it is once more a country under renewed oppression and control. The historical restrictions and oppression of Firebird still in place. With Sergey’s memories and journey a continuing reality for far too many of its citizens.