Based on a true story, Peter Rebane’s epic, gorgeously shot and flawlessly acted romantic drama Firebird takes place over a six year period in the Cold War-era USSR– specifically, on an Air Force base in the late 70’s. We meet Sergey (played magnificently by Tom Prior), a young private in Soviet-controlled Estonia. Sergey is counting the days until his military service ends. One of his closest friends is Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), the pretty and kind secretary to the base commander. Sergey’s highly regimented life is interrupted by the presence of Lieutenant Commander Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a strikingly handsome fighter pilot about 10 years older than he. The two initially bond while developing film and discussing the performance arts. Their friendship soon turns into discreet romance, with equal amounts of companionship, playfulness, affection, and intimacy. However, looming above the two lovers is Article 121, which can punish male homosexuality with up to five years of hard labor in prison. The tension of being caught colors every aspect of Sergey’s and Roman’s blooming relationship: As one character accurately states, “The KGB knows everything.” One particularly tense scene has a Major (an excellent Margus Prangel) dropping in on Roman’s quarters while Sergey is hiding in the closet after the two men had enjoyed an intimate moment. Another powerful scene, demonstrating anti-gay sentiments at the time, has a scene of toxic homophobia which goes dangerously close to escalating into a graphic gay bashing; thankfully, the audience is spared from seeing it. Clearly, director Rebane has a supreme talent for creating moments of edgy drama on film.
One year after finishing his service, Sergey– with his military haircut grown out– finds himself living a very different life as a theater student in Moscow, studying Shakespeare and dancing to Boney M’s Ra Ra Rasputin with his equally creative fellow students. Roman, still in the military, has married Luisa, ostensibly to protect the men’s affair from being exposed. Nevertheless, Sergei and Roman create their own unorthodox union of sorts, even stealing away for a gorgeously filmed seaside outing, with the supersaturated blue sky and water and sunkissed beach forming quite a contrast from the gray-tinged scenes from the military base. But what happens next? In a scene set in 1979 (which would ultimately be prophetic in our current era), the audience catches a TV news snippet about the start of the Soviet-Afghan War, an event that would ultimately impact the life of all three of the main characters.
At its heart, Firebird is a simple story with a universal, timeless theme: A forbidden love which never gets to be completely realized due to the time period. Rebane, who also gets credited as a writer and producer, brings that simple story to the grand level of an LGBTQ cinematic classic. In recreating the setting and the aura of the time period, Rebane pays loving attention to historical accuracy, detail, and– most importantly– the complex realism of human emotions. The director gets fine performances from the entire cast. For so many of us growing up in America in the 1970’s and 80’s, much of the imagery of the Soviet Union, garnered from newspapers and school textbooks, was often limited to colorless images of people waiting on lines for toilet paper and wearing drab clothing . Firebird shows a far more complete view of life in that era, but the film doesn’t sugar coat Soviet culture during that time period by any means. Nor does it shy away from the day-to-day life in the military, complete with the intense physical challenges and the rigid roles for every man or woman. There’s even an all-out action sequence, an unflinchingly pulse-pounding segment showing the response to suspected NATO activity. But perhaps the most important thing that Firebird shows us is that even in the tense, tightly regimented environment of a military base in the USSR, human emotions can’t be controlled or conquered– especially the emotion of love.
Firebird is playing as part of the 2021 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival:
OUTFEST IN-PERSON SCREENING @ DGA 1 (Director’s Guild)In Person Screening: Saturday – August 21st – 1:30PM
Virtual Screening: August 22nd – August 24th