In Firebird, a gay romance leads to heartbreak, tragedy and too much melodrama

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The Firebird by Peeter Rabane

If nothing else, director Peeter Rebane Bird of Fire succeeded in shedding a harsh light on the government-sponsored homophobia that has long marked Russia’s attitude towards homosexuality. In fact, Rebane had a choice of centuries in which to set his first feature film. Any time between 1716, when Peter the Great made consensual sex between men in the army and navy punishable by flogging, and today, when homosexuality is legal but homophobia is rampant, would provide enough obstacles to sustain any drama. Rebane chose the Cold War of the 1970s and the story of Sergey and Roman, two real gay servicemen stationed at a Soviet Air Force base, whose clandestine relationship threatened to land them in prison for up to five years. years.

Rebane, an Estonian music video and documentary filmmaker, used a powerful story to tell, if only he had stepped aside. Instead, it thrives on melodrama, clichés and cheap symbolism until this ostensibly heartbreaking tale of forbidden love hardens into something generic and prefabricated. Sincerely felt and well designed yet stubbornly conventional, Bird of Fire lacks the weight and tenacity of similar South Africa Moffie or the tactile emotivity of recent flagship works of LGBTQ+ cinema such as call me by your name and Moonlight.

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In fact, it would be more appropriate to check the name of Ang Lee Brokeback Mountainan infinitely better film that nevertheless shares a compelling element with Bird of Fire. They both feature two characters navigating a hyper-masculine environment that forces them to deny their sexuality. Unlike the lush plains of Wyoming where cowboys roam Brokeback Mountain, Bird of Fire takes place mostly in the drab surroundings of the Eastern Bloc, beginning with Haapsalu Air Base in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1977. Sergey (Tom Prior, who also co-produced) is weeks away from completing his service in the Soviet Air Force when assigned to help newly arrived fighter pilot Roman (Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii). Sergey takes an immediate interest in the dashing Roman while Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), secretary to the base commander, secretly has a crush on Sergey.

With this promising love triangle established, Bird of Fire, co-written by Prior and Rebane, quickly pushes Luisa to the sidelines to focus on Sergey and Roman. Starting timidly, their mutual love of the theater leads to a trip to the ballet to see a rehearsal of Stravinsky Fire Bird while their shared interest in photography translates into flirtations in the darkroom and whispers of deserved dialogue (of which there are many) in photos depicting “a moment that will never be here again”. As things heat up between the two, Rebane covers all the required bases of queer and forbidden love cinema, but with the painstaking precision of a filmmaker trying to remain respectful to his sources (Bird of Fire is based on the memoir of the real Sergey Fetisov) while wooing a mainstream audience. The characters speak clunky English with a Russian accent, and their inner thoughts are too often conveyed using hammered-out visuals and color-coded lighting and props that may expand the film’s accessibility, but limit its effect.

When Roman manually stimulates Sergey during a dip in the ocean, Sergey’s orgasm is followed by two fighter jets flying overhead, rather silly phallic imagery. If Douglas Sirk himself had directed Bird of Fire even he could have avoided the fiery red background that surrounds Sergey before a major confrontation and the huge symbolic capital S crack in a wall around which the separated lovers stand. This all seems very unfortunate at a time when it can be argued persuasively that LGBTQ+ films are leading the way in telling stories that are bold, intimate, and emotionally generous. In Bird of Firewatching a cadet clean the barracks with a scrub brush and being told “you’re too soft, tougher, tougher” makes one nostalgic for Michael Stuhlbarg’s devastating three-minute monologue from call me by your name.

Representing the Soviet stance toward same-sex relationships, rather dimwitted KGB Major Zverev (Margus Prangel) receives an anonymous report accusing Roman of having an affair with an unnamed male colleague. Zverev is the kind of villain who is shrouded in shadows whether inside or out, and who tends to half-obscure in puffs of cigarette smoke. When he reminds Roman that “five years in prison in a forced labor camp” awaits him if the charges against him are true, Roman is forced to end his relationship with Sergey.

Prior and Zagorodnii have great chemistry, although the two look so gorgeous at Fashion Week that they border Bird of Fire near the territory of the soft nucleus. At least we understand why Roman continues to hold a candle for Sergey, who moved on to a Moscow drama school where quotes from Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare add an arthouse shine but also allow Sergey to express feelings that he cannot otherwise express. Rarely have the words “to be or not to be” been reused to such heartbreaking effect. The home stretch, as Roman and Sergey rekindle their affair in a rented apartment, increases the soap factory but allows Bird of Fire to briefly and effectively spotlight Luisa, whose grief is an emotional chip that the film waits far too long to play. As a real sense of tragic inevitability creeps in with the increasingly apparent notion that Sergey and Roman’s relationship will never work, Luisa is caught in the middle. And even if her side of the love triangle is poorly served, at one climax, she feels quite authentic and effective.

Dismissal Bird of Fire because a business card film sometimes overcooked for a first feature director would be unfair. Sergey and Roman’s story is tragic, and Rebane’s respect for her seems genuine even though many of her choices are questionable. His main point is never lost: too many gay men (and women) live unfulfilling lives because the heavy machinery of a homophobic government works cruelly against them. Bird of Fire sands the edges of this very real and persistent problem with the brilliance and melodrama that makes the film, and those with the most to learn, no favors.

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