BFI Flare 2021: ‘Firebird’ Review

Luigi Barraza Cárdenas considers a romantic drama, set in Cold War Estonia.

Let me be blatantly honest from the beginning: I have a thing for forbidden romances. Romeo and Juliet, Cersei and Jamie, Marianne and Eloise, they all tickle my most bashful romantic proclivities. The mere idea of forbidden or (in this context) morally reprehensive love, exhilarates me to the point where I should consider seeing a therapist about it. This questionable inclination has, admittedly, informed some of my most self-sabotaging behaviours and unhealthy relationships thus far. Hence, I was so ready to be excited and emotionally invested in Firebird, a love story between two soldiers set in Soviet Estonia. Sadly, I was somewhat disappointed by this sleek, elaborate, and melodramatic debut feature from Estonian director Peeter Rebane.

Inspired by a true story and adapted from the novel of the same name, the film is set in Cold War Estonia. The year is 1977, and everyone speaks English with different levels of proficiency. In an airforce base (dressed to impress with over-the-top propaganda) we first meet our protagonist Sergey (Tom Prior). He is about to finish his military training, despite his superior’s insistence for him to continue. He takes photographs and wishes to be an actor. The film doesn’t shy away from reinforcing stereotypes about gay men. Sergey is sensible and artsy and doesn’t belong in that military world of toxic masculinity. He enjoys a good friendship with fellow comrade Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), who is evidently attracted to him. The nature of their relationship is assumed to be romantic by others, although Sergey has never indicated such advances. The arrival of a new attractive young pilot, Roman, (Oleg Zagorodnii) ignites both their interests and unleashes trouble and fiery passion. They are all also unrealistically good-looking, which doesn’t hurt.

Overall, the production values of the film are really good. The cinematography is highly accomplished, particularly the use of light in twilight settings and candlelit indoor scenes. It is all very intimate and the more sensual scenes are executed gracefully, effectively bringing sexual tension when required. I must say, I did find the military hierarchy element and power dynamics a bit discomforting, but who am I to judge? Additionally, all of the scenes set in gorgeous Tallinn are stunning and I particularly enjoyed the dancing compositions and costumes, however brief. As cheesy as it is, I loved the Firebird analogy since I am a sucker for Russian ballet stories and fables. Sue me. Still, the performances are uneven, partly due to some cringy dialogue and clumsy scripting. Pozharskaya is the most natural of all performers and rises to the occasion in the more dramatic scenes towards the end of the film.  

It seems like my latest reviews all have a language dimension to them. I don’t want to be the language police, but there are some things too difficult to ignore. I am highly critical of the English language choice for Firebird, as well as the muddled array of accents carelessly flying around. I would expect this sort of identity erasure and lack of focus from a Hollywood production. Hire a bunch of ‘Eastern European’ actors and have them pretend to be Estonian on screen. After all, audiences are stupid and won’t tell the difference anyway or even notice the nuances since they speak no other languages. If it worked for Aladdin, it will work for us, right? Wrong. I am no linguist expert, but I found the divergent accents both very noticeable and very distracting. The assumed correlation between heavy accents and villainous characters in the film is borderline offensive. The nineties want their political incorrectness back. The fact that the production is Estonian made it so much worse. This kind of tokenism hurts all of us living on the fringes outside the “western”-anglophone bubble. I am Mexican and still found it infuriating. The film would have benefited greatly from being in Russian or Estonian, and perhaps provided a more authentic and immersive experience.

Joylessly, I have to report that this forbidden romance I was rooting for lacks personality or authenticity to hold itself together. The film struggles the most when attempting to balance the more intimate moments with its grand, operatic aspirations. Ultimately, Firebird is a missed opportunity to tell a tender tale about first love and heartbreak, however bizarre the power dynamics at play. I truly believe there is a great story about human connections and developing your identity under difficult circumstances buried under all the military special effects and “high-stakes” drama. Despite its glossy look, it all transpires too much like an old nineties telenovela, with some ludicrous situations, forced exposition, and odd caricatures. Its larger-than-life ambitions hinder the beating heart of the film, which is the connections and relationships between these three young people and the difficult choices they are forced to make due to the system and regime they find themselves in. 

Firebird premiered at BFI Flare Festival, and is not yet due for UK release.

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