The last film on my BFI Flare Festival watchlist was Firebird, a period drama based on a true story set in Estonia during the Cold War. Following Private Sergey Fetisov (Tom Prior) who is serving the last few weeks of his military service and finds himself in a relationship with Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a fighter pilot visiting the base. Based on Fetisov’s memoir The Story of Roman, Firebird follows the author’s story as he finds himself in a love triangle with Roman and his best friend, Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya). The military setting provides the contrast with the men’s desire to be free with each other as the threat of punishment looms over throughout the film.
Directed by Peeter Rebane from a script cowritten by Rebane and Tom Prior, this is clearly a passion project and the respect and love for the film’s subject and story is evident from start to finish. Rebane utilises the setting of the film through beautiful use of location. The standout in this film’s production is how Rebane makes an open space feel incredibly claustrophobic to a point where we can physically feel Sergey’s entrapment as he has to deal with the reality of the situation. The film feels split into two parts with the first half exploring life on the military base and the love between the men blooming and the second half follows Sergey to Moscow where he is attending drama school and his reconnection with Roman.
Cowriter Tom Prior also leads this film as Sergey Fetisov. Capturing Sergey’s conflict as he tries to figure out what he wants from life to the revelation that he has fallen for Roman. Prior’s performance is clearly well researched and brings Sergey’s struggle to the surface. His perspective is the audience’s way into this world and the clash between the strict regime that he is living which contrasts against his own artistic leanings. Clearly an outsider from the beginning, we see him breaking the rules at the start of the film as he goes for a midnight swim with Luisa and a friend. The scene in which Sergey attends Roman and Luisa’s wedding is heartbreaking as he knows that he has lost the love of his life. Prior’s performance in this scene as he sees Roman after a long time is a revisit to the trauma that he experienced having to leave all over again. Prior provides a great leading turn that portrays the subject with passion and respect.
The second lead in the film is Oleg Zagorodnii who really captures Roman’s plight. Whereas Sergey is fulfilling his compulsory service to the military, Roman has established himself and risen in the ranks to Lieutenant. When Sergey suggests the two of them leaving for Sweden, Roman doesn’t even consider the thought because of his loyalty to his country. The irony in this is that the country he is so loyal to forbids him from being with the person he wants to spend his life with. Zagorodnii’s performance is full of heartbreak in a subtle way. Because of his high ranking position in the military, there is more intensity when a report is filed stating that he is gay. The scene in which the Colonel searches his room to find his unknown lover is horrific and highly intense as we know Sergey is there. The moments in which Roman has to publicly reject Sergey and lie to protect both of them is where Zagorodnii shines in his performance.
In support, Diana Pozharskaya is a star in the making as Luisa, Sergey’s best friend who was initially set on planning their future together. Diana isn’t in the film nearly as much as I would have wanted her to be as she is such an intriguing character. We get to see different sides to her through brief scenes such as when she encounters a childhood friend in the street who has recently married and had a baby. Luisa finds herself unknowingly trapped in a love triangle as she diverts her attention from Sergey to Roman. Pozharskaya plays Luisa as a character with strength rather than a typical passive character that we are so used to seeing from female characters in war time dramas. In particular, her performance in the final scene of the film sums up the torment and heartbreak that has lingered through the film.
Overall, Firebird is more traditional in its topic and structure but still packs a punch. Delving into the heartbreak and trauma that comes with being an outsider in a society where people will do anything for their country. The conflict between doing what is expected from society and what the individual wants to do creates a story that is heartbreaking, gripping and unpredictable. Featuring a slew of great performances, this film is sure to strike a chord with many audiences, especially those who like their period dramas.
Firebird is showing at the BFI Flare Festival.