In the Soviet Union of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the setting of Firebird, consensual sex between men was a crime punishable by five years of hard labor. And if you were a high-profile military officer and under the watchful eye of the KGB, the danger of being punished was that much greater. Adapting The Story of Roman, a memoir by Russian actor Sergey Fetisov, director Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior, who also stars, trace the fits and starts of a love affair that unfolds under such trying circumstances.
Turning from music videos and concert films to tell this true story in his first narrative feature, Rebane has created an old-school melodrama that aims for a Sirkian sheen, its visuals sumptuous and its clinches glossily, tastefully steamy. There’s so much potential heart and heartbreak in Firebird’s tale of forbidden passion that the screenplay and the cautious pacing become frustrating; with every ache measured and spelled out, the film’s dogged striving for poetry too often leaves it feeling disappointingly prosaic.
Aims for poetic heights but merely plods.
Prior plays a character based on Fetisov, who died in 2017, precisely 40 years after the movie’s main action begins. At the Haapsalu Air Force Base in Soviet-occupied Estonia, Sergey is a private with just a few weeks left to his mandatory service. He enjoys midnight swims with fellow Russian soldier Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) and Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), a native Estonian who works in the office of the colonel (a very good Nicholas Woodeson). Breaking curfew, the disobedient trio foreshadows the triangle that will define the drama.
Luisa, whose romantic interest in Sergey goes unreciprocated, is disappointed as well in his lack of military ambition. Having declined an offer from the colonel to stay on and build a career with the air force, he plans to return to his mother’s farm in Russia, his desire to become an actor an unformed dream, stashed on the back burner. Studying to achieve her own goal of attending medical school, Luisa scoffs at Sergey’s interest in the theater. But he finds a kindred spirit in Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a dashing lieutenant who’s newly assigned to the base and shares his interest in photography. In one of the film’s more cogent observations, it’s revealed that for each of them the camera is not just a creative pursuit but also a veiled way of looking at men.
The colonel entrusts Sergey to serve as the lieutenant’s driver and guide, and after a couple of off-hours, yes, photo-developing sessions and more than a few exchanges of charged glances, Roman takes Sergey to a rehearsal of the Stravinsky ballet that gives the movie its name. They top off their unofficial cultural diversion with a detour into the forest, where they suss things out (“Do you have a girl back home?”), steal a smooch, endure a sudden downpour and escape discovery by border guards.
Back on the base, Roman grows more bold and reckless as his flirtation with Sergey turns to love. As an ace fighter pilot who’s impossibly dapper and unexpectedly genteel, he’s subjected to insults by jealous stock characters and threats from a hissable bulldog of a KGB officer (Margus Prangel) about his suspected homosexuality. Citing Article 121 of the Soviet criminal code, the major threatens to destroy the lieutenant’s career.
Roman’s mission is one of pre-drone-era derring-do and, incidentally, a reminder of geopolitical context for the region. He’s tasked with ensuring that NATO jets — missile-loaded MiGs, nuclear-loaded B52s — don’t breach neutral or Soviet airspace. The film, which began its fest-circuit run in early 2021, well before Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, is also a reminder that citizens are not their governments. The motherland and Stalin are the subject of snide jokes that Sergey and his fellow soldiers like to tell one another.
Roman, on the other hand, is a devoted officer who probably wouldn’t appreciate the humor. And yet it’s at his urging that Sergey pursues theater studies in Moscow. The aspiring actor is given to arguing for the true life rather than one of convenience, as he does in a good-natured debate about Romeo and Juliet with a fellow student, the screenplay driving home the point that art equals truth and laying out its capital-T theme. (By contrast, Sergei Lavrentyev, who brought Fetisov’s memoir to the attention of Rebane in the first place, injects the proceedings with a burst of unpolished, off-the-cuff energy in his brief appearance as Sergey’s drama teacher.)
Firebird’s interest in Luisa’s unwitting role in the two men’s love story sets it apart but doesn’t go far enough. Pozharskaya has a natural intensity that the film, with all its stolid sincerity, could have used more of. Rather than repeating its obvious points about Sergey and Roman’s struggle, it might have spent more time exploring the pressure to marry that Luisa and other women of the era internalized, and how single women could be considered suspect.
With three credited production designers, the film has a sure grasp of period detail, creating a lived-in sense of aesthetic limitations and economic constraints. (A number of characters marvel over the amenities and attributes, invisible to modern American eyes, of a drab Moscow apartment.) Less successfully, Rebane and cinematographer Mait Maekivi aim to accentuate the timelessness of the love story through imagery of Sergey and Roman in sexual thrall, often in secluded seaside spots — scenes that feel old-fashioned and self-conscious. The less said about Roman’s model airplane the better, but it’s worth noting that in a bizarre spin on Hitchcock’s train tunnel, one intimate encounter climaxes with a shot of fighter planes swooping across the water. And yet, as weird as this is, it’s a welcome disruption in a heavy-handed drama with little momentum.
If Roman’s struggle between duty and desire resonates, it’s not merely because of the way his times defined him, but because in many countries today, the times have barely changed. Shot in Estonia, Russia and Malta, Rebane’s international production — he’s Estonian, Prior is British, Pozharskaya Russian and Zagorodnii Ukrainian — is an earnest, if dramatically inert, call for compassion. In its polite way, Firebird rails against soul-crushing intolerance and the small-minded watchers and snitchers among us. It offers a well-meaning valentine to someone who encouraged the man he loved to follow his heart, even if he couldn’t bring himself to do the same.