Firebird – Film Review

Estonia, 2021
107 minutes, rated R
Dendy Canberra Tuesday 17 May at 6.30pm celebrating International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

It always comes as a shock how recently it was that homosexuality and relationships between people of the same gender were illegal across the world. In Australia, it was not until 1997 that Tasmania became the last jurisdiction to decriminalise homosexuality.

This film, set mainly in Soviet-annexed Estonia and Moscow in the 1970s, is the true story of a love affair between Russian conscript Sergey Fetisov (Tom Prior) and fighter pilot, Roman Matvejev (Oleg Zagorodnii). At the time, Soviet men in uniform caught having a sexual affair were subject to severe punishment.

The film is based on the the book The Story of Roman, and 11 hours of interviews by Prior and the film’s director, Peeter Rebane, with the real-life Sergey Fetisov, who died in 2017. Rebane also had permission to scan Fetisov’s photo archive, and used documentary footage from the era to ensure historical accuracy.

The use of the motif of Stravinsky’s Firebird music and Diaghilev’s eponymous ballet (note the same first name of our hero Sergei) for this film is interesting. The work was first performed by the Ballet Russes in 1910. It is a story of love and magic, of a hidden soul and of eventual freedom, of good and love overcoming evil. It’s also about bargains made, favours in exchange for mercy.

While the film is about a gay love affair, it is equally about the crushing effects of authoritarian regimes.  Both aspects are handled with sensitivity and insight.  The main protagonists are sympathetically drawn, their passions and torments entirely believable.

The juxtaposition of the worlds of the military and the theatre arts are potent. Whether we be listening to the foul mouthed bullying of the sergeant with the conscripts or the insidious threatening menace of the KGB officer, we are  struck by how dehumanising this whole system is, not just for the victims of oppression but for the oppressors.

The insights into the domestic and family ramifications of choices that had to be made for survival are well articulated in this film. We can thoroughly sympathise with all parties, the men in love, the wife/friend who feels betrayed and the child of the marriage between Sergey’s friend Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) and Roman. There simply is no easy solution.

This film joins a collection of modern works, literary and other, on the issues raised around same-sex love and relationships. It is a story which holds and moves the viewer and well worth a trip to the big screen for the landscapes both icy and sun washed which are the back drop to the various doings of the characters.

  • Director:  Peeter Rebane
  • Writers:  Peeter Rebane, Tom Prior
  • Cast:  Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii, and Diana Pozharskaya
  • Also showing in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart