By Claire Meakins, Second year, English literature
The doomed romance of Sergey (Tom Prior) and Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) is compelling but also heavily clichéd. The Russian war setting lends the film a certain originality, as well as a poignant and timely reminder of the horrific discrimination gay couples have faced (and continue to face) in both countries and throughout the ages. Despite this reminder, the general lack of originality of the film unfortunately makes it quite unmemorable.
The film’s moments of joy shine brightly against its literal and tonal gloom. In one memorable scene, the lovers head to the beach and experience a brief day of blissful freedom, filmed in warm, vibrant tones. Scenes like these are refreshing and give the film a glimmer of hope, but it’s hard not to sense the predictable tragedy looming beneath them.
It is a drama that it is obviously important to bring to light, but Bird of Fire offers very little new in the model of tragic gay love films. Historical films about these condemned and forbidden lovers have oversaturated the canon of mainstream queer cinema. This is problematic because it suggests that homosexuality is something that can only end in “punishment”, rather than celebrating the love between two individuals. It feels like Roman’s death is being used as a tool to wrap up endings and create emotional impact, as if the director (Peeter Rebane) is afraid to stray too far from that pre-established format. Tragic and heartbreaking films can be very successful, but when a film offers few unique elements (as in the case of Bird of Fire), it becomes forgettable in a sea of incredibly similar narratives. Of course, a gay couple in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War probably wasn’t going to have it easy (and the fact that the film is based on the true story only limits that further); however, it would have been good if the film dwelled more on the moments of joy that one could find “to live in the interstices”.
That said, Bird of Fire still packs an emotional punch worth experiencing. The cinematography is excellent throughout with shots of the grey, snowy Moscow skyline helping to create a moody atmosphere. The acting, while slightly cheesy in the most romantic scenes, is superb in moments of pathos with Prior and Zagorodnii showing their ability to convey strong emotion through a simple look. The use of photography as a motif reinforces the importance of the gaze in film, with photography often serving as the impetus for action. It also allows for a shared passion between the pair, culminating in a “mutual gaze” scene in a makeshift darkroom.
Margus Prangel as the intimidating KGB major delivers a solid performance. His menacing composure and physical stature make him feel like an omnipotent force seeking to destroy Sergey and Roman’s chances of happiness. The film’s first-half tension is driven by him, and he very deftly manages to feel menacing without coming too close to a caricature of evil. Her character is a powerful reminder of the outside forces that keep the couple’s romance in check in a film that’s mostly about the barriers they’ve erected themselves.
Bird of FireThe best parts are where it deviates from tropes and allows for new ideas in its narrative. Its timeliness of discriminating against Soviet sub-regimes lends it an element of freshness, but overall the end result is too cliche to be truly original.
Featured Image: IMDB, Herkki Erich Merila
What did you think of Bird of Fire?