Queer Love (Almost) Wins in Russian War Romance ‘Firebird’

There is much to cause one’s eyes to roll in ‘Firebird,’ and yet, the damn thing might just get to you


Newly harsh LGBTQIA+ repressions in Russia and America alike bring a sense of import to Firebird, a deeply imperfect, irresistibly romantic weepie about two Soviet soldiers in love, circa 1977. English co-writer/producer Tom Prior stars as Sergey, a Russian Air Force private finishing his military service at the Haapsalu Air Force Base in Estonia, the Baltic country occupied by the Soviet Union in the decades after World War II. His commander wants him to reenlist, but Sergey hopes to attend acting school in Moscow, a dream he only admits to Luisa (Russian actress Diana Pozharskaya), his fellow soldier and sorta-kinda girlfriend, who hopes he’ll stay on to be with her.

Enter the recruitment-poster-handsome fighter pilot Roman Medveyev (Ukrainian actor Oleg  Zagorodnii) who needs a driver and who is, like Sergey, an amateur photographer and a devotee of Tchaikovsky and the ballet. Sergey and Roman have mad chemistry between them, but Prior and co-writer/director Peeter Rebane, adapting The Story of Roman, a memoir by Sergey Fetisov, who died while Firebird was in pre-production, give the two time to know one another before throwing them together sexually.

Their first kiss, which comes after a near moment of discovery by military police, is likely to live on as the film’s most iconic moment. That kiss is urgent and hot and then joyous, with each man seeming to let free a breath they’ve been holding half a lifetime. It’s a funny thing—these days, film has an abundance of gay couples, but great kisses are as rare as ever. This is one.

Sergey and Roman then grow maddeningly reckless, even as Major Zverev (Estonian actor Margus Prangel), a suspicious KGB officer, begins popping up at every turn. Played with a nervous-making glower by Prangel, Zverev brings much-needed tension to the story, particularly in a suspenseful search of Roman’s apartment. The KGB man’s villainous energy is missed in the film’s more conventional third act, which finds Roman married, and with a young son, but still in love with Sergey.

Making his feature debut after a music video career, Rebane, who was born in Estonia, displays natural filmmaking skills that are often undone by a determination to make the film visually lush at all times, even when pretty isn’t what is required. In the process, he soft sells the rigors and terrors of military life, especially for those living in the closet.

Regrettable, too, or just plain silly, is Rebane’s instinct toward underscoring an emotional point, as when Sergey and Roman steal away to the beach late one night to be together for the first time. With their bodies and jawlines flexing magnificently in the moonlight, the new couple makes out behind a giant rock in the water and just as Sergey climaxes, two fighter jets streak past overhead. Sergey trembles and so too does the night sky. Whoosh!

There is much to cause one’s eyes to roll in Firebird, and yet, the damn thing might just get to you. Prior and Zagordnii have absurdly fabulous hair, and unforgivably ridged abs, but they’re also working from deep emotional currents. When these actors look at each other, they do so with such an intensity of feeling, both sexual and emotional, they really are channeling the real Sergey and Roman, and all the secret lovers like them. Firebird isn’t the least bit great, but its lover’s embrace will likely mean the world to many.

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