Peeter Rebane’s adaptation of queer memoir The Story of Roman is far too timid, especially when it has the potential to blaze.
(This review is part of our 2021 coverage of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival./)
Firebird sounds like the title of a story about blazing passion and roaring eroticism taking flight. But Peeter Rebane’s new feature, adapted from Sergey Fetisov’s The Story of Roman (his memoir of life as a gay man in the Soviet Army during the 1970s) is a muted melodrama. In Firebird, desire smolders and must remain grounded. Rebane has crafted a conventional story that has hints of the poetic but never fully finds its wings.
Just as Sergey (co-writer Tom Prior) is nearing the end of his military service, a handsome fighter pilot named Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) arrives on base. Roman throws all that was certain for Sergey into question. He had thought he might settle and marry his friend and colleague Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya). But Roman reawakens desires Sergey had long suppressed.
Once the two meet, their world is placed in immediate jeopardy. As the years pass, Sergey struggles with being Roman’s paramour. Tensions mount until decisions must be made and deceptions must be enacted if the couple is to survive. With the ever-looming threats of discovery, unemployment, and hard labor growing closer and closer, Sergey and Roman will have to decide whether to fly or die.
Sergey, Roman, and Luisa make for a love triangle well familiar to queer period drama. In many ways, Firebird moves as might be expected: suspicion leads to suffering and then finally (tragic) sublimation. While Firebird‘s marketing highlights its Soviet-era setting, the story it tells is an all-too-common experience around the globe. This means that it will be legible to a wide range of viewers, but it also means a lack of specificity.
If Rebane set out to make a statement about Soviet-era surveillance, his use of Sergey and Roman’s photographs dilutes its impact.
Surveillance and inspections are prevalent throughout the film, but Rebane works to counterbalance them with an alternate notion of “looking.” Sergey is an actor and bonds with Roman over ballet. But it’s photography that both truly brings them together and separates them. Sergey “sees” men; he’s fascinated by the mouths and moods. Roman focuses on Sergey and not Luisa. And Photographs can both reveal and betray secrets, for better and worse.
If Rebane set out to make a statement about Soviet-era surveillance, his use of Sergey and Roman’s photographs dilutes its impact. The couple’s photos reaffirm the underlying principle of surveillance: that looking and observation reveal hidden things. Yet simultaneously, this is Firebird‘s primary contribution to queer period drama. Instead of creating a disproportionate and disingenuine sense of anxiety that would fall into dominant US narratives about queer life and trauma in the Soviet Era, Rebane presents a more complex idea of the pleasure and dangers of looking.
Seeing makes things true. During a time when living true to themselves was difficult—even detrimental—for queer folks, there was danger in seeing or being caught looking. Firebird wrestles with these complexities of queer historical life but ultimately eschews risk in favor of safe storytelling. Our queer elders were brave folks—we owe it to them to be braver with their stories.