Made last year but suddenly obliquely relevant after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this Estonian-British co-production examines some of the ways a repressive and homophobic state apparatus scars citizens with shame. Based on a true story according to the opening credits, the setting is the late 1970s when the Soviet Union still occupied the Baltic nations. Provincial Russian youth Sergey Serebrennikov (played by British actor Tom Prior, also one of the screenplay’s co-authors, along with Estonian director Peeter Rebane and story originator Sergey Fetisov) is doing his national service at an army base in Estonia. He has a coy flirtation going with local beauty Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), a secretary on the base for a commanding officer, and he is pally with his bunk mate Volodja (Jake Henderson). However, when Sergey is assigned to serve as a sort of valet to suave ace fighter pilot Roman Matvajev (Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii), the attraction between the two men turns physical and they’re soon making out to Tchaikovsky records and sneaking off to Tallinn to watch a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird, hence the film’s name.
Alas, this was a time when homosexuality was outlawed in the Soviet military – though the current situation is not much better – and an anonymous source tips off the local KGB officer, meaning that Sergey and Roman have to hide their love away. Sergey’s service comes to an end, and he moves to Moscow to train to become an actor, finding a more bohemian circle that lets him keep the closet door ajar if not fully open. A few years go by and in classic melodrama fashion, Roman shows up again, just unable to quit Sergey (as they say in Brokeback Mountain), even though he has married and fathered a son in the meantime.
Ultimately, it’s a rather sad story, not unlike Brokeback given the period setting and closeted-love theme. But director Rebane, though competent enough, is no Ang Lee. Prior and Zagorodnii certainly have romantic chemistry, but the dialogue is often more than a little stiff and there’s something weirdly off about movies where characters speak English with one another instead of the language the characters are supposed to be speaking in, in this case Russian. You can see why the film-makers chose to do it this way, but it makes the film feel old-fashioned and clunky. That’s a shame because the film’s exploration of love, courage and the price of speaking your truth is as timely as it’s ever been, and for Russians particularly.