Firebird (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Their forbidden romance during that grim period

“Firebird” is an old-fashioned tale of two gay lovers limited and suffocated by the grim oppression of their society. While it does not bring anything particular new to its genre territory unlike many notable predecessors such as “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), the first half of the movie works to some degree mainly thanks to the engaging romantic tension between its two main characters who are trapped inside their small isolated environment drenched in good old machismo, and it is a shame that the movie subsequently begins to fizzle as expanding its scope during its second half.

The story, which is based on Sergey Fetisov’s memoir “The Story of Roman”, is initially unfolded via the viewpoint of young Sergey (Tom Prior), who was going through his mandatory military service at a Soviet Air Force base located in the border area of Estonia in 1977. As many of you know, the Cold War era was reaching to another peak during that time, and the early part of the film shows us how Sergey and many other privates always have to be ready for any possible real emergency in addition to enduring lots of mistreatments from their direct superior. Like many others around him, Sergey has been pretty tired of his ongoing military service, and that is the main reason why he refuses a recent good offer which may start a promising military career for him.

Whenever he is free, Sergey often hangs around a fellow private named Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) and a young woman named Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), who has worked as the secretary of the base commander. While Volodja is clearly interested in getting closer to Luisa, Luisa is actually more interested in Sergey, but, as reflected by a brief scene where Sergey’s camera comes to focus more on Volodja than Luisa, Sergey is a gay, and he is certainly discreet about his sexuality because homosexuality has been considered as a serious crime in the Soviet military.

And then an unexpected change comes on one day via Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a hotshot pilot who is recently transferred to the base. Not long after Sergey is assigned to Roman as his driver, Roman shows some interest in Sergey as recognizing Sergey’s sensitive sides, and they soon become quite close to each other as Roman gladly encourages Sergey’s artistic talent. Besides providing Sergey a private spot where they can develop films together, Roman also takes Sergey to a local theater in the nearby city for showing the rehearsal for the ballet performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, and Sergey is certainly grateful about that.

Eventually, there comes a fateful moment when Sergey and Roman recognize their mutual attraction and then let themselves swept by that strong emotion between them, but they also know too well that they must be very careful even when they are helplessly driven by their developing love. There are always ears and eyes spying around them, and things soon become quite serious when Roman happens to draw the attention of a KGB officer at the base, who instantly senses something fishy from Roman when he throws a few questions to Roman during their private meeting.

This increasingly risky circumstance comes to dampen the relationship between Sergey and Roman, but, not so surprisingly, their emotional bond turns out to be stronger than they thought. When his military service period is finally over, Sergey applies for some prestigious drama school in Moscow as suggested by Roman, and he is certainly happy when he is eventually accepted and starts to study there, but then Roman comes into his life again with more complications. Still feeling attracted to Roman, Sergey lets Roman to be around him again, but, of course, they are reminded again of how much they are trapped in their world with no bright future for them.

What follows next in the story is predictably melodramatic to say the least, and that is where the movie falters more than once. While we get to know more about how much Sergey has been suppressed by his homophobic society for years since a certain traumatic incident which is not so far from what has painfully haunted Heath Ledger’s character in “Brokeback Mountain”, Roman remains to be a rather distant character, and several key scenes between him and his family feel merely perfunctory without much depth.

As a result, the second half of the film often feels like an extended epilogue, but the movie is still carried well by the solid efforts from two lead performers even during that part. While Tom Prior, who also adapted Fetisov’s memoir along with director Peeter Rebane, is full of youthful sensitivity as required, Oleg Zagorodnii effectively complements his co-star with his more reserved appearance, and they are also supported well by a number of supporting performers including Jake Thomas Henderson, Margus Prangel, Nicholas Woodeson, and Diana Pozharskaya, who did a good job of bringing some spirit and personality to her rather thankless role.

If it were made around, say, 20 years ago, “Firebird” would probably draw much more attention for its main subjects. Sure, this is a well-made romance period drama which has some good things to enjoy besides its two engaging lead performers, but, in my humble opinion, it does not distinguish itself enough compared to many other recent gay drama films, so I will let you decide on whether you should check it out or not.

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