When finding love in a hopeless place, it’s hard to imagine better source material than a memoir by a former Soviet soldier, who recounted his affair with a pilot during the Cold War.
“Firebird” is based on Sergey Fetisov’s story of his clandestine 1970s romance, and for it, the director Peeter Rebane has found faces that seem pulled from a Soviet propaganda poster. It’s a liaison of square jaws, square shoulders and square corners of starched uniforms. The film, written by Rebane and Tom Prior, who plays Sergey, is a bit square, too.
Sergey, a private at the Haapsalu Air Force Base in Estonia, meets Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a hotshot pilot, while taking photographs for the military journal. Despite their grim surroundings — the undecorated barracks reverberate with the barks of orders — the pair have a tender courtship. They share a passion for photography, and Roman introduces Sergey to ballet. The consummation of their dewy-eyed affair is filmed with the same candlelit filter applied to the covers of romance novels. When the couple are reprimanded by their military superiors and pressured to separate, it comes as a surprise that they were ever trying to hide.
Romances in cinema are animated by their ability to show the passing moments in conversation, the accidental gestures that signal interest. What is stultifying for this beautifully photographed, thoroughly handsome film (shot by the Estonian cinematographer Mait Maekivi) is that it lacks spontaneity in its moment-to-moment execution. Each line and image feels predetermined, as if Rebane and his characters had already decided this love story was a losing battle. There is loss, but little sense of risk.
Rated R for sexual content and brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.