Firebird Soars With a Quiet Flame

A smoldering romance that succeeds despite the odds

In the landscape of queer cinema, the subgenre of forbidden romance feels like the product of a bygone era. While queer relationships are becoming more mainstream and normalized, the idea that those relationships need to stay secret to avoid punishment seems a little antiquated. However, it helps to put in perspective how far the queer community has come and how far we have yet to go, because it wasn’t too long ago that forbidden romance was almost all there was. Few films help illustrate this point better than Firebird, a smoldering romance that succeeds despite the odds.

Set in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the late 1970s and based off the memoirs of Sergey Fetisov, Firebird tells the story of young Sergey (Tom Prior) and the time of his mandatory conscription into the Russian army. It’s here he meets and falls in love with Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a handsome fighter pilot. They struggle to keep their affair secret from the KGB, and even after Sergey leaves the base, their feelings for each other and the ever-looming threat of being exposed keeps their lives complicated.

Rhapsody in blue.

As I mentioned in the intro, I tend to view the forbidden queer romance trope as a little outdated, even when it’s a period piece such as Firebird. There’s a distinct formula to these kinds of films, and Firebird doesn’t deviate too far from that. Every time Sergey and Roman have a positive encounter, there always another shoe waiting to drop. This film definitely isn’t seeking to shake up that subgenre or defy its tropes.

However, Firebird rises above that relatively predictable framework to tell a quietly moving story that burns with a low but radiant flame. That this is based off of the real experiences of a real person helps to keep the film from feeling like just another forbidden romance, even if it never fully shakes off that energy. The film is told almost entirely from Sergey’s point of view. Scenes where he isn’t featured come off as if they’re being reconstructed from what he knows of the characters and their situation. We never forget that this is Sergey’s story, and that’s what gives the film its personality.

It also helps that this film’s creation was overseen by queer people, giving the film a much-needed air of authenticity. Both director Peeter Rebane and lead actor Tom Prior are openly gay, and both men co-wrote and produced the film. It was a passion project for the two, both of whom had befriended the real-life Sergey prior to his death in 2017. Firebird‘s story never feels less than honest, and it comes off as grounded in the best ways. It often feels as if Sergey is telling his story to you many years after it happened, after time has softened the impact but not the resonance.

Love on the rocks.

There is a distinct feeling of restraint throughout the film, sometimes leading into resignation. Emotions are intense but controlled, powerful but subtle. Sergey and Roman’s attraction blossoms in the quietest of glances and the in the most nuanced body language. They slip into their passion quietly and easily, both able to read each other perfectly upon their first meeting. Of course, in a time and place where gay relationships were punished with time in a hard labor camp, such an approach was beyond necessary.

And here is where we find the film’s most powerful strength: its cast. Those subtle moments exist thanks to multi-layered and invisibly-faceted performances by both Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii. Prior serves as a sympathetic narrator, his more innocent and romantic Sergey a fine counterpoint to Zagorodnii’s more pragmatic and conflicted Roman. The film gets its name from the first time Sergey and Roman spend time away from the camp together, attending a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Firebird. The tension between the two is palpable and thick, with both men silently recognizing their attraction to one another but afraid to say anything about it. Prior and Zagorodnii are simply magnetic together, and they share a kind of intoxicating chemistry.

However, because we are seeing most everything from Sergey’s perspective, this can lead to a few instances of the film failing to live up to its true potential. We don’t get to learn much about either man’s backstory. While we do get a few scenes detailing significant events in Sergey’s past, we only know about Roman through what Sergey tells us. As a result, Roman can sometimes come off as a bit of an enigma. This also goes for Sergey’s best friend Luisa, played by Diana Pozharskaya, who ends up forming part of a bizarre love triangle with Sergey and Roman. While Pozharskaya’s performance is great, her material sometimes feels a bit awkward in the grand context of the film. Luisa often comes off as an obstacle to Sergey and Roman’s relationship, albeit an unwitting one, and sometimes it feels as if her characterization in the script doesn’t go far beyond that.

No funny caption; just a wonderful image.

But back to Sergey and Roman. I really can’t stress enough how easily it is to be swept up into their complicated affair. There is a genuine love between the two men, one that even the KGB cannot break. Every time they fall apart, it’s only a matter of time before they come back together. It’s a quiet but foundational kind of power bonding them together, succeeding despite the restraints put upon the relationship. It’s perhaps best exemplified in the first big love scene between Sergey and Roman. It’s restrained but also undeniably erotic and romantic; slow, intense, and passionate, finding its voice in secret spaces.

This is also where Firebird itself finds its voice. It thrives on soft power, seeking to tell its truth through quiet emotion rather than fiery drama. There are invisible threads running through every scene that don’t become apparent until the end of the film, and this is quiet literally. A stinger after the credits puts all the events of the film into a new context that almost begs you to rewatch it. And why not? When you’ve got a love story this genuine and sincere, it both earns and deserves your attention.

FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B

Firebird is available to stream through Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.

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