Firebird is a romantic war drama film first released in 2021, directed, co-written, and co-produced by the Estonian film director and producer Peeter Rebane, starring the English actor Tom Prior (who also co-wrote and co-produced the film), the Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii, and the Russian actress Diana Pozharskaya. The film was produced by both the United Kingdom and Estonia, and, despite being set in Soviet times, the language of the film is English.
Based on a true story, the film was inspired by Sergey Fetisov’s memoir The Story of Roman. Set in the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War, the film tells the story of how the real-life Sergey fell in love with Roman during his two-year mandatory conscription in the 1970s.
The real Sergey Fetisov died in 2017, but he did meet Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior, who began writing the film in 2015. Sergey was a successful actor and starred in over 40 Soviet and then Russian films and TV series.
All three actors excel in their roles in the film, with Tom Prior as Sergey Serebrennikov, Oleg Zagorodnii as Roman Matvejev, and Diana Pozharskaya as Luisa. The love triangle between the three of them is very moving because of their fine acting.
(Warning: SPOILERS!) And remember to check out our grading rubric if you are unfamiliar with how the Unicorn Scale works. Sergey, an anxious young private, is uneasy with his military service. His world is changed forever when Roman, a handsome fighter pilot, arrives at the base.
The toxic masculinity of the military service is juxtaposed with the love that Sergey has for the theatre and the arts: and so, when Roman takes him to see a ballet — The Firebird by Stravinsky — they soon fall in love. A love triangle forms between them and Luisa, the secretary to the base commander. Eventually, Roman and Luisa marry, with Sergey in attendance at the wedding.
But Roman continues seeing Sergey, behind Luisa and later his son’s back. The three of them keep their friendship, and Sergey spends New Year’s Eve with Roman, Luisa and their son. But eventually, Luisa discovers a private letter between the two men and is shocked and tearful to learn of their affair. Eventually, with Sergey having gone to acting school to follow his dream of becoming an actor, and Roman continuing his career as a fighter pilot, Roman dies in an accident. Sergey is distraught and goes to see Luisa, who is first angry at him but then ends up hugging him and even giving him some of Roman’s things.
What I Liked:
There were so many things that I liked about this film. For example, I think the casting worked very well, and there was clear chemistry between all three people in the love triangle, so the acting was genuine.
The fact that this film is based on a real story is my favorite aspect of the film; it gives some representation to LGBT people in Soviet times. This is especially relevant now where even in 2022, Russia is a difficult place to be for LGBT people, with legal marriage not a reality, and many difficulties LGBT people face including this very film being criticized for its LGBT themes and was even called “homosexual propaganda”. So for this film to have been made at all, is a revolutionary act of resistance itself, and I am so glad that this film was made despite all the obstacles the writers and producers faced, not only in securing funding to make it, but the struggle of showing it in Russia, and now, since the war in Ukraine, the struggle of showing it abroad.
To me, the most worthy aspect of this film was the fact that theatre, ballet and classical music were an escape for Sergey from the heteronormativity and hyper-masculine brutality of the army, in which not only the love between Sergey and Roman was punishable by law, but the whole atmosphere of the army was one of shaming others; their nasty superior beats soldiers and calls them “perverts”, and the homophobic comrade interrupts Roman and Sergey’s night of passion, making threats that if anything is going on, they will be punished.
Eventually, Sergey’s so-called friend tells on them, and they have to deny their relationship because sex between men was punishable with five years in prison. But what was good was that though at first this discouraged Roman and he said “Nothing ever happened between us” to Sergey, he soon gives in to his desire and they have sex, not only after their warnings in the army and almost losing their positions regarding Roman’s career as a fighter pilot but also after Roman marries Luisa.
So the initial shame and feelings of guilt they have about their relationship are soon overcome, and the only place they feel relaxed is in the company of one another. The secrecy of hiding in more senses than one — both physically from their superiors, and also their sexualities — is soon replaced with healthy conversations discussing feelings, future plans and dreams, as well as painful childhood memories of homophobia and discrimination.
The fact that Sergey was able to express himself through acting and the arts, was a poignant contrast to the fact that he was not able to express himself in real life and be his true self. This juxtaposition made the film more touching.
The theme of swimming in open waters is also a powerful motif; at the beginning of the film, Sergey’s friends, a straight couple, kiss in the waters; later in the film, Sergey and Roman find solace in escaping the military base to kiss and be intimate in the open waters. This recurring theme of open water swimming as an escape to nature when faced with the brutality of militarism and training for war highlights the fact that all romantic and sexual feelings between two adults are natural, and war is not natural.
At times I was reminded of Brokeback Mountain, and that is always a positive. For example when Sergey told Roman, “I tried so hard to forget you but I can’t” reminded me of the famous quote “I wish I knew how to quit you” from Brokeback Mountain.
All in all, Sergey’s story was an important one and I am glad it was told in such a way.
What I Didn’t Like:
I actually liked most aspects of the film and its story. The few things that I would have changed would be the textbook sentimentality or sometimes predictable clichés that unfortunately occur often in the film. I also wished Roman would have made braver choices, for example in being honest with his wife. By cheating on her, and seeing Sergey only for one week at a time once every few years, it felt like both Luisa and Sergey were being cheated of having access to all of Roman.
How revolutionary would it have been to be honest with his wife about his bisexuality and his relationship with Sergey? But then, I understand that that is easier said than done, especially in the Soviet times. What would have been perfect would be that all three parties knew what was going on, rather than Luisa having no idea until she found out by accident. So there was always a sense of Roman being split into two. But we bi people know that we can be our fully bi selves whether monogamously or ethically polyamorously, so I sometimes felt frustrated with Roman’s treatment of both Luisa and Sergey.
Stylistically, the overdone sentimentality at times did feel a bit like a generic color-by-numbers romance. And for authenticity, the film would have been better as a Russian-language film, rather than having Tom Prior and other actors speak in a pretend Russian accent. I understand that actors put on accents all the time, but there was no real reason for the film to be in English when its setting was Soviet.
The bi representation in the film had some good and bad points. It was good to see Roman’s bisexuality, but it would have been much better if it had been acknowledged as bisexuality rather than just a conflict of whether he should spend more time with Luisa or Sergey.
Apart from these small issues, everything else about the film was commendable, and it is well worth seeing!