If it achieves nothing else, director Peeter Rebane’s Firebird will have succeeded in shining a harsh light on the government-sponsored homophobia that has long marked Russia’s attitude towards homosexuality. In fact, Rebane had his choice of centuries in which to set his feature debut. Anytime 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 ’70s and the story of Sergey and Roman, two real-life gay servicemen stationed at a Soviet Air Force base, whose clandestine relationship threatened to land them in prison for up to five years.
Rebane, an Estonian music video director and documentarian, tapped a powerful tale to tell—if only he’d gotten out of its way. Instead, he ladles on the melodrama, the clichés and the cheap symbolism until this ostensibly heart-rending tale of forbidden love hardens into something generic and prefabricated. Sincerely felt and well-crafted but stubbornly conventional, Firebird lacks the weight and toughness of South Africa’s similar Moffie or the tactile emotionalism of recent landmark works of LGBTQ+ cinema like Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight.
Actually, it would be more appropriate to namecheck Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, an infinitely better film that nevertheless shares one compelling element with Firebird. They both feature two characters navigating a hyper-masculine environment that forces them to deny their sexuality. Unlike the lush Wyoming plains where the cowboys roam in Brokeback Mountain, Firebird takes place mostly in drab Eastern Bloc environs, starting with Haapsalu Air Force Base in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1977. Sergey (Tom Prior, who also co-produced) is weeks away from completing his service time in the Soviet Air Force when he’s assigned to assist 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 crushes on Sergey.
With this promising love triangle established, Firebird, co-written by Prior and Rebane, promptly pushes Luisa to the margins to focus on Sergey and Roman. Starting tentatively, their mutual love of theater leads to a trip to the ballet to see a rehearsal of Stravinsky’s The Firebird while their shared interest in photography results in some darkroom flirting and whispering of tin-eared dialogue (of which there is much) about photos representing “a moment that will never be there again.” As things heat up between the pair, Rebane covers all the requisite bases of queer, forbidden love cinema but with the careful precision of a filmmaker trying to stay respectful to his source material (Firebird is based on the real Sergey Fetisov’s memoir) while also courting a mainstream audience. Characters speak awkward Russian-accented English and their inner thoughts are too-often conveyed using hammy visuals and color-coded lighting and props that may broaden 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, a rather silly bit of phallic imagery. Had Douglas Sirk himself directed Firebird even he might have avoided the fiery red background that surrounds Sergey before a major confrontation and the enormous capital-S symbolic crack in a wall around which the estranged lovers stand. It all feels very unfortunate at a time when one can persuasively argue that LGBTQ+ films are leading the way in telling bold, intimate and emotionally generous stories. In Firebird, watching a cadet clean the barracks with a scrub brush and being told, “you’re too soft, harder, harder” makes one nostalgic for Michael Stuhlbarg’s devastating three-minute monologue from Call Me by Your Name.
Representing the Soviet stance towards same-sex relationships is rather oafish KGB Major Zverev (Margus Prangel) who receives an anonymous report accusing Roman of having an affair with an unnamed male colleague. Zverev is the kind of villain who’s surrounded by shadows whether he’s indoors or outdoors and is given to half-obscuring himself in puffs of cigarette smoke. When he reminds Roman that “five years imprisonment in a hard labor camp” awaits him if the accusations against him are true, Roman is forced to end his relationship with Sergey.
Prior and Zagorodnii have a fair amount of chemistry, although both are so Fashion Week gorgeous that it edges Firebird near soft-core territory. At least we understand why Roman continues to hold a candle for Sergey, who has moved on to a Moscow drama school where Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare quotes add arthouse sheen but also allow Sergey to articulate feelings he cannot otherwise express. Rarely have the words “to be or not to be” been repurposed to such heartbreaking effect. The final stretch, as Roman and Sergey reignite their affair in a rented apartment, ups the soapiness but allows Firebird to briefly and effectively spotlight Luisa, whose sorrow is an emotional chip the film waits much 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 a climactic moment she feels quite authentic and effecting.
Dismissing Firebird as an occasionally overbaked calling card film for a first-time feature director would be unfair. Sergey and Roman’s story is a tragic one and Rebane’s respect for it feels genuine even if many of his choices are questionable. His overarching point is never lost: too many gay men (and women) live unfulfilling lives because the heavy machinery of a homophobic government is cruelly working against them. Firebird sands the edges off this very real and ongoing problem with gloss and melodrama which does the film, and those who have the most to learn from it, no favors.