***This review contains spoilers for the film Firebird.
Peeter Rebane’s Firebird has struck a chord with lovers of queer cinema for its captivating portrayal of a secret love affair between a Russian fighter pilot and soldier stationed on a Soviet Air Force base. Based on Sergey Fetisov’s memoir A Tale About Roman, Rebane and lead actor Tom Prior became inspired by the story and adapted it for the screen. The result is a beautifully stylized film that recapitulates a familiar story from a new perspective.
The costuming and set pieces on Firebird are stunning. The uniforms are crisp, the base is bleak and dank and the love scenes shimmer in that magical way that emotes the feeling of being in love. The usage of water as a creative and destructive force in the life of Sergey is overt yet subtle at the same time, creating a fascinating through-line from the first to the last scene of the movie. It is a clever device that alone makes the film worth watching. From a visual and artistic perspective, the movie is aces.
It also helps, of course, that the performances are brilliant. Tom Prior’s earnestness and passion as Sergey is palpable. He gives a fearless performance. Oleg Zagorodnii’s portrayal of Roman’s turmoil is grounded in the reality of the time and situation he found himself in, creating a strong sense of both anger and empathy in the viewer. Diana Pozharskaya shines as Luisa delivering a powerful, yet vulnerable performance in the role that makes this story unique.
Comparisons to Brokeback Mountain are both inevitable and accurate here. Each film deals with clandestine love affairs between married men trapped within homophobic societies. However, Firebird differentiates itself by showing how the love affair impacts Luisa. Even though the viewer wants to see Roman and Sergey find their happily ever after, you cannot help but to feel for Luisa who had no insight into the situation until it was too late.
The film begs the question as to whether Roman ever truly loved Luisa or if he married her simply to escape the suspicion of the Major and KGB who were looking to imprison him for acts of homosexuality. Roman and Luisa’s child is another helpless victim of circumstance here. In his final letter to Sergey, Roman chooses to go serve in Afghanistan rather than choose between his love for Sergey and his love and responsibility for his family. That choice cost him his life and shattered three other lives in the process.
The final confrontation between Luisa and Sergey is electric. Two people have simultaneously lost the love of their lives, but Luisa has the compounded grief of finding out that her husband was having a gay love affair with her best friend. She had to deal with the reality of both Roman and Sergey’s betrayal and the fact that her marriage was built upon lies. Sergey holds his own in this confrontation however, feeling the gravity of her situation but at the same time letting Luisa know that the love he shared with Roman was just as real and just as powerful as hers. It was an intensely sad moment that allowed two best friends to briefly reunite in their shared grief before parting ways forever.
Firebird is a fantastic watch and a clear labor of love. Painstaking effort was made to authentically recreate the setting and time period in which the story takes place and reminds us, yet again, how intolerance and hate can destroy lives.
Firebird is available to rent or own on most major VOD platforms including Amazon.