In Peeter Rebane’s debut movie, Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii play Soviet Air Force soldiers dealing with sexual tension and professional pride. On the other hand, Firebird may be intriguing to the point of boredom due to its typical framework and sanitized approach.
Based on an actual event, Estonian director Peeter Rebane initially became acquainted with Sergey Fetiso after reading his book, The Story of Roman. He was immediately drawn to this story of unattainable homosexual love during the Cold War. He worked on the script alongside Firebird’s lead actor, Tom Prior (The Theory of Everything). The result is a ridiculously entertaining and expertly told narrative of love and loss—even if it eventually struggles to unify its political backdrop or accomplish anything unique with its storytelling style.
Sergey (Tom Prior) is counting the days before he can leave a Soviet Air Force station and pursue his dream of becoming a Moscow actor. Until then, he must undergo strenuous workouts in his barracks, reminiscent of scenes from Full Metal Jacket, as well as muddy, dismal training sessions. That is, until Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) comes, a sensitive and impossibly attractive lieutenant who shares his passion for literature and theater. The spark is immediate, and their love affair takes off quickly—but with apparent risks lurking around every turn, their romance can only endure so long before it implodes. Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), an ignorant secretary with love for both men, is caught in the midst.
Rebane maintains a close focus on the problems of this troika over years and locales. Perhaps just putting a familiar love story in a different location won’t be enough for others; at moments, it feels like the film misses a chance to dig into its context and be more intellectual about how bigotry impacts LGBT kids mentally. Firebird eventually abandons politics in favor of focusing on love, even though homosexual love—particularly in the 1970s Soviet Union—is intrinsically political and should be handled as such. Perhaps not every picture needs to reinvent the wheel, but it would be untrue to claim that I wasn’t fascinated and touched by what I saw.
Firebird follows a familiar structure: a meet, a romance, a problem, a tragedy, and a recovery. Nonetheless, the film is entirely watchable. Zagorodnii and Prior have electrifying chemistry, and their stolen glimpses through dark lashes contribute to a stirringly passionate ambiance. With Zagarodnii’s Clark Kent-like good looks, it’s difficult not to swoon along with Sergey as their connection comes into clarity, like the pictures they take together in darker settings.
Every muscular muscle, passionate look, and smoldering kiss is framed by beauty and intensity. Mait Mäekivi’s cinematography imbues each picture with an aesthetic vibrancy: the symmetry of the poppy fields, woodlands, and houses is almost Wes Anderson-esque. It’s a lovely film, reflecting the sweet simplicity of their first meeting, but it may clash with the violence and homophobia of the KGB-controlled environment.
Rebane intended the picture to be “in English to reach the broadest audience globally.” Yet, the Russki clichés of vodka, party pins, and dissatisfied apparatchiks felt cheap, like a Smiffy’s dress-up of the Soviet Union rather than an honest attempt at the real thing. Prior seemed to be so concerned about mucking up his Russian accent that he doesn’t bother to do one half the time.
Despite his accent and terrible wig, Prior performs effectively with his inner agony and sexual drive clashing in dramatic, heated sequences. Pozharskaya manages to transcend the bit-part of the cuckolded wife to hold her own in the difficult-to-elevate role of Luisa. Overall, Zagorodnii emerges as the star—a guy unable to live up to his exalted position in life and work, allowing fear and yearning to kill him from inside.
Firebird is undeniably good at pulling you into its tale, so it’s a shame it resorts to hackneyed iconography and unsubtle language. A plunge in the water becomes a metaphor for battling one’s inner turmoil—never seen that one before! There is an over-reliance on a piece of cello-heavy music, which adds to the sterilized gloss of an ITV Drama rather than a gay love tale. Sergey is reading Shakespeare at one point when he exclaims aloud, “to be or not to be, that is the issue.” There’s even a “Rasputin” needle-drop, which, although amusing, is a touch too startling to ignore. You can’t help but feel that this is a missed opportunity. Despite this, it’s a quietly devastating and assured debut.