“Firebird” is a swooningly romantic love story, clearly influenced and inspired by films like “Brokeback Mountain,” with themes of forbidden love in an ultra-masculine setting. It also draws from some of the classic love stories of the past like “Now Voyager,” with deep, unabashed romanticism, as though the modernist tone of ironic distance never existed. This love story gets the full-scale, old-school glamour treatment: gorgeous people, yearning glances, exquisite images, swelling music, passionate kisses, interlaced fingers, golden moments, anguished moments. Although there are very explicit passages, beyond the wildest imagination of the movie romances of the 1940s and ’50s, “Firebird” holds on to the symbolic depiction of passion, with rainstorms and even a shot of planes soaring through the sky at a climactic moment.
As the story opens, Sergey is a private in his last weeks of military service, just as Roman, an officer and a fighter pilot, is arriving on the base. There is an immediate connection over their shared interest in developing photographs. But the difference in their rank, the difficulty of finding a way to sense one another’s interest, and the risk of five years hard labor for homosexual activity make it almost impossible for them to find their way to a kiss. By the time it happens, we are anticipating it almost as eagerly as they are.
Director and co-screenwriter Peeter Rebane evokes the chilliness and repression of the Soviet-era military culture, where discipline is extremely rigid, even brutal, but with the thin veneer of brotherhood. Officers are oxymoronically referred to as “Comrade Colonel” and “Comrade Lieutenant.” Despite the suggestive chumminess of the language, the hierarchy is strictly observed and no departure from even the most trivial of the rules is tolerated. This adds to the already overpowering stakes for Roman and Sergey.