BFI Flare 2021 Review: Firebird

Firebird, a captivating love story set during the Cold War, is written by Tom Prior and Peeter Rebane who present a beautifully sensual romance which packs all the simmering tension of a brooding espionage thriller. Prior leads alongside Ukrainian talent Oleg Zagorodnii, whilst Rebane takes on directorial duties for this heartfelt, polished feature which draws inspiration from The Story of Roman by Sergey Fetisov.

Firebird transports viewers to Soviet occupied territory where escalating tensions between the East and West are brooding. Junior officer Sergey (Prior) strikes up a discreet romance with dashing Lieutenant Roman (Zagorodnii). Matters are complicated when suspicions regarding Roman’s sexuality are investigated by the pilot’s superiors, resulting in a situational love triangle developing between Sergey’s best friend Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) and Roman. Both men see their relationship pushed to extremes, fighting against the odds and the challenges of an anti-gay regime.

Firebird’s narrative is one that grips from the onset, from the gradual romantic tension simmering between Sergey and Roman – beautifully encapsulated in a poignant scene where Roman takes aspiring actor Sergey to a theatre under the guise of military business or quieter moments with the pair bonding over photography – to the blossoming of their relationship in the dangerous setting of a Soviet military base. Immediately both men are faced with odds stacked against them and a harsh regime which wills to keep them apart. Blending delicate sensuality with an undercurrent of foreboding tension and unease allows Firebird to strike up a truly impressive tonal balance that feels part love story and part sharp Cold War thriller.

Prior and Rebane craft Sergey and Roman with a rich emotional depth and authentic sense of heart – something further enhanced by Prior and Zagorodnii’s endearing performances. Both actors convey the sense of attempting to push away any form of romantic tension, yet Firebird’s narrative bolsters the idea that greater forces pulls these men together. When both soldiers begin their relationship there is a buoyant energy and passion captured through Rebane’s sensual direction and its crafting of a delicate romantic suspense. Impressively transitioning from dimly lit leather bound rooms and starchy outfits to intimate moments where the skin of both men is lit with a warming glow and beautiful natural lighting helps craft a delicate romantic texture. Close-ups of hands, bodies being caressed and intimate breathy love scenes further envelop us in the woozy passionate charm of Firebird encouraging us to root for our handsome protagonists.

During a scene where Roman and Sergey enjoy a romantic exchange in the sea, a missile fires overhead; the joyous optimism of this moment is hit with reminders of the prescient urgency of the Cold War and the secrets and suspicions of Roman’s military superiors. Rebane and Prior craft a claustrophobic tension through sharp close calls including an unannounced visit to Roman’s quarters by the intimidating Major Zverev (Margus Prangel) and suggestions of KGB investigations into the handsome Lieutenant’s past. These tense espionage elements craft a sense of the magnitude of the forces at work to prohibit this behind closed doors romance – only investing us in their bond further. Impressively polished action sequences including a tense moment of fighter plane drama add a further sense of conviction to the setting (which provides slight homage to ‎Powell and Pressburger wartime classic A Matter of Life and Death), whilst Eva-Maria Gramakovski, Kalju Kivi and Frantseska Vakkum’s production design fully transports us to Cold War Russia through their aesthetics.

As the narrative progresses beyond the military base, Firebird finds interesting new routes to take Roman and Sergey’s relationship on, whilst expanding on the Luisa love triangle angle. This act allows cinematographer Mait Mäekivi to capture the striking power of Moscow’s architecture and some picturesque coastal imagery in the film’s latter moments, ensuring that Firebird packs an equal visual and emotional clout.

Tom Prior’s performance as Sergey is sublime in its exploration of the complexities of he and Roman’s relationship. Swept up by Roman’s charm, Sergey must face the challenges of his lover’s commitment to the military and Luisa – capturing the painful position of someone faced with continual opposition to being with the one they love. Packed with a heartfelt expression and conviction, the performer is magnetic. Similarly Oleg Zagorodnii shines, capturing the man pulled between in the oppressive system of the Russian military and the Motherland and the man he loves. Zagorodnii’s performance is charismatic and endearing, whilst capturing the challenges and intense frustrations that his position puts he and Sergey’s relationship through. Much praise should be bestowed upon Diana Pozharskaya who commits to the role of Luisa, swept up in the entanglement of lies, confusion and hurt that her romance with Roman brings.

Firebird is captivating watch that simmers with a sensual romantic energy, whilst simultaneously proving to be a sharply tense and atmospheric tale of forbidden Cold War love. Performances brimming with conviction from Prior and Zagorodnii fully invest us in the heart-wrenching romantic journey between Sergey and Roman, whilst Rebane’s direction presents this with a sense of heart, optimism and earnest emotional conviction.