“Firebird,” the first narrative feature by director Peeter Rebane, is clearly a labor of love. It is based on a 1996 memoir by the Russian actor Sergey Fetisov called “A Tale About Roman,” which details a forbidden love affair he had with a handsome fighter pilot on a Soviet air base in Estonia in the 1970s.
Rebane co-wrote the script with Tom Prior, an English actor (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) who stars as Sergey in the film, and it took them many years to get “Firebird” made and released. Whether all this effort was worthwhile is open to question.
The first half of “Firebird,” set on the base, takes its time to let us see the slow-building attraction between Prior’s Sergey and Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii). Sergey likes to take photographs, and when he first sees Roman, he can’t help but let his camera linger over this man’s eyelashes, nose and mouth. When he finds himself next to Roman at a reception desk, Sergey sneaks a glance at him, and he sneaks another glance at Roman when they are in a truck together.
Rebane keeps things going at a lightly simmering pace as we watch Sergey falling more and more in love with Roman; the actors speak English with light Russian accents, but words have very little importance here. The dominant creative force in this first section of “Firebird” is cinematographer Mait Mäekivi, who gives the blues and reds of the uniforms and the flags on display an early-Technicolor sort of gleam.
There is a scene in which Sergey and Roman are in a darkroom developing photographs together, where Mäekivi casts an orange glow over their faces broken only by the red of their lips, a very unusual color combination that greatly aids the feeling of a building romantic tension between them. When Sergey is driving a truck with Roman in the passenger seat, we see trees going by on the windshield but only on Roman’s side of the screen, an expressive visual idea that is all the more effective for not being lingered on. You could follow the first half of “Firebird” even if you didn’t speak English, because all of the meanings are being expressed visually rather than in dialogue.
When Sergey and Roman finally kiss, it feels like a collision, like cymbals clashing, but there is a lighthearted quality to the way Rebane portrays their passion that can sometimes feel more than a little silly. When the clandestine lovers sneak off to skinny-dip with each other and start to have sex underwater, Rebane quickly cuts to two very phallic jet planes shooting ultra-fast together through the sky.
Though set mainly in the 1970s, “Firebird” often feels like it is taking place in the 1940s and ‘50s, but that is likely true to the era and locale being recreated. We are made aware that these characters are living under the most oppressive conditions when Sergey is making a joke about Stalin and is interrupted by a superior who takes note of his behavior. The lovers are threatened when an anonymous poison-pen note is sent to one of the heads of the base; if they are found out, they will each get five years in prison at hard labor.
Unfortunately, the second half of “Firebird” is far less involving than the first. Roman marries the beautiful Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), and Sergey studies acting in Moscow, but they just can’t quit each other, even though Prior wears an absurdly unconvincing wig after Sergey grows his hair long. There are title cards on screen that read “Four years later” and “One month later,” and so forth, and the climax of the narrative is so rushed as to feel implausible.
There is no balance here that would make Luisa part of a triangle, and her feelings about both Sergey and Roman remain very opaque, but that’s generally the problem with stories like this. The woman who finds herself involved in such a situation in life is playing a thankless role, and that thanklessness tends to hold true dramatically on screen as well. What stays in the memory after seeing “Firebird” is not the characters or the plot but the saturated color images that Mäekivi captures with his camera, which at their best reach a Vittorio Storaro–level of visual sumptuousness.
“Firebird” opens in US theaters April 29.