Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV

‘Firebird’ is a stunning, emotionally vulnerable portrait of the cold war

Warning: Spoilers ahead

For over three decades, the ​​image+nation Film Festival has worked to promote local and international queer filmmakers, and this year is no exception. From Nov. 18-28, the festival played a variety of international 2SLGBTQIA+ films at the Centre PHI, including Firebird//, an Estonian film based on Sergey Fetisov’s memoir The Story of Roman, which featured on Nov. 24. This timeless adaptation is a tragic love story with gorgeous cinematography and compelling lead performances.

Set on an air force base in Soviet-occupied Estonia, Firebird tells the story of troubled soldier Sergey (Tom Prior), who falls in love with his superior, Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), while fending off the romantic advances of his friend Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya). The film follows the young couple as they face a multitude of challenges, including the KGB, lofty career goals, and a plane crash. Tested by time, Roman and Sergey’s five-year love story takes them across the Soviet Union, where they fight for their love without being discovered.

The film’s highlights are grounded in Prior’s performance. Effortlessly conveying a newfound sense of confidence as Sergey distances himself from his military life, Prior delivers a dynamic performance that matures as time passes in the film. His performance is magnificently complemented by Zagorodnii’s; the two have an electric chemistry that pulls the audience in and leaves them emotionally torn by the end. The instantaneous connection between Sergey and Roman is exhilarating to watch and is never diminished—both actors play their characters with the same love and passion from the moment they meet through to the end of the film. 

The film’s cinematography especially stands out. Director of photography Mait Mäekivi takes time to show the beauty of the wartorn Estonian forests throughout the film. Shots linger on subjects and scenery, slowing the film down to allow for a break in dialogue and action. Diverse, changing colour palettes reflect the emotional states of different characters. For example, the lighting grows warmer as Sergey distances himself from his life in the military but darkens when he is pulled back into it during an encounter with an old colleague. The cinematography works in conjunction with Prior’s phenomenal acting to merge character, setting, and time into a visually stunning experience.

The beautiful camera work is complemented by the score and soundtrack. Composer Krzysztof A. Janczak seamlessly integrates the soundtrack into the film to express the intense emotionality of the film. It feels as if the landscapes and score are in perfect harmony, the music corresponding with the changing colour palette and typography. The score is not only emotionally moving but auditorily diverse, making use of a variety of orchestral instruments throughout the film. The constant rotation of instruments perfectly reflects the emotional growth of the characters. The soundtrack adds gags and references that work to alleviate tension and bring a sense of calm or joy to the screen. Firebird may have the best needle-drop of 2021, using “Rasputin” by Boney M. during a scene in the fourth act.

Firebird was an exceptional choice on behalf of the festival—the captivating lead performance and eye-catching cinematography will move audiences. Once again, the image+nation Film Festival has delivered an excellent precedent for international queer cinema.

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