Review: ‘Firebird’ (2021), starring Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii and Diana Pozharskaya

May 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in “Firebird” (Photo by Herrki-Erich Merila/Roadside Attractions/The Factory)

“Firebird” (2021)

Directed by Peeter Rebane

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Estonia and Russia, from 1977 to 1983, the dramatic film “Firebird” (which is inspired by a true story) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men, who begin a secret love affair while they are in the Estonian military together, continue their love affair even after one of the men marries a woman and has a child with her. 

Culture Audience: “Firebird” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about closeted gay people, but the movie is frequently dull and has questionable acting.

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in “Firebird” (Photo by Herrki-Erich Merila/Roadside Attractions/The Factory)

Regardless of the sexualities of the characters in the drama “Firebird,” this monotonous film glorifies a relationship as romantic, when it’s really a doomed love affair where one person in the relationship is very selfish and manipulative. Viewers with common sense can easily see that the love triangle depicted in “Firebird” is not true love. It’s a story about someone taking advantage of two vulnerable people who deserved a better love partner. It doesn’t help that some of the acting in “Firebird” is very stilted and awkward, which makes a lot of the movie very emotionally unconvincing.

Inspired by real events, “Firebird” was directed by Peeter Rebane, who co-wrote the “Firebird” screenplay with “Firebird” star Tom Prior. The movie takes place from 1977 to 1983, in Estonia and Russia, with homophobia and the military ban on homosexuality serving as the reasons why the two men in the love triangle have to keep their affair a secret. “Firebird” isn’t the first movie to cover this topic, but “Firebird” unfortunately and mistakenly tries to make the liar and cheater in the relationship look like some kind of tragic hero.

In the beginning of the “Firebird,” it’s 1977. Sergey Serebrennikov (played by Prior) is a military private in his mid-20s at Haapsalu Air Force Base in Soviet Union-occupied Estonia. Sergey does well in the military, but his real passion is in creative arts. He’s an enthusiastic photographer, and what he really wants to do with his life is become an actor. Sergey’s closest friends at the Air Force Base are Siderov Volodja (played by Jake Henderson) and Luisa (played by Diana Pozharskaya), who are about the same age as Sergey.

Siderov is a slightly rebellious type who has a knack for getting away with some mischief. The movie’s opening scene shows Sergey, Siderov and Luisa taking a swim in a lake at night when they’re supposed to be in their sleeping quarters on the Air Force Base. Two security officers who are patrolling the area hear the commotion in the lake, and one of the officers shines a flashlight and threatens to shoot. While Sergey and Luisa hide, Siderov comes out from the shadows and identifies himself.

One of the security officers says to Siderov, “You again?” Ultimately, the security officers do nothing and walk away after telling Siderov to go back to the base, although one of the officers mutters to his co-worker, “Next time, I’ll shoot him.” Siderov’s confidence in being able to break the rules is in marked contrast to Sergey, who is terrified of getting himself and other people into trouble. It’s one of the reasons why Sergey stays too long in an on-again/off-again relationship with the deeply closeted man who ends up taking more than he gives in their relationship.

Sergey never explicitly states what his own sexuality is in the entire story. In the beginning of the movie, he has a massive crush on Luisa. Sergey gets secretly upset when Luisa dates other men. Luisa has firmly put Sergey in the “friend zone,” although sometimes she flirts with Sergey too. Siderov tries to give Sergey confidence-boosting talks on how he can win over Luisa, but Sergey seems to know that Luisa will see Sergey as nothing more than a close friend.

One day, a good-looking fighter pilot named Roman Matvejev (played by Oleg Zagorodnii), who’s in his late 20s or early 30s, arrives at the Air Force Base. The first time that Sergey sees him, Sergey is outside with his constant companions Luisa and Siderov while trying to take a “selfie” group photo of the three of them. Roman walks up to the trio and offers to take a picture of the three pals instead. Roman looks at Sergey in a way that suggests that he might want to do more to Sergey than take a picture of him.

Roman has been recruited to the Air Force Base because it will be his duty to prevent a B-52 bomber with a thermonuclear device from slipping through an air corridor to Leningrad. Roman’s immediate supervisor is Major Zverev (played by Margus Prangel), who is every worst stereotype of a homophobe. Major Zverev reports to Colonel Kuznetsov (played by Nicholas Woodeson), a tough but fair-minded supervisor, who believes in Roman’s talent and seems to want to be Roman’s mentor.

Because of Sergey’s interest in photography, he encounters Roman on some occasions when Sergey is developing photos in the photo darkroom on the Air Force Base. During their conversations, an unspoken attraction grows between Roman and Sergey. Roman, who is older and more experienced, makes the first move when he and Sergey kiss each other for the first time. It isn’t long before Roman and Sergey are sneaking off together for sexual trysts, including a hookup in the same lake where Sergey and Luisa were almost caught with Siderov.

At some point, Sergey decides that he would be happier being an actor than a military person, so his request to be discharged is granted. Sergey, who grew up on a farm, plans to go to Moscow to pursue his dream of being an actor. Roman and Sergey both share an interest in live theater, and they even go see a theater show together on a date. During a secret rendezvous, Sergey half-jokingly tells Roman that they should run away to Moscow together. Considering that Roman wants to stay employed by the military for as long as possible, the idea of Roman and Sergey living in bliss together for the rest of their lives is a pipe dream at best.

Someone at the Air Force Base must have seen Roman and Sergey together, because Major Zverev gets an anonymous complaint that Roman is having a same-sex affair, which is grounds for a dishonorable discharge and a prison sentence. Roman is ambitious and want to rise through the military ranks, so his response to the accusation is entirely expected: He denies everything.

Major Zverev doesn’t really believe Roman, but Colonel Kuznetsov is willing to give Roman the benefit of the doubt, especially since the complaint was anonymous, and the complaint did not have any proof. “Firebird” has a few tension-filled scenes where a suspicious Major Zverev tries to find proof that Roman is having a sexual relationship with a man. Meanwhile, Roman becomes paranoid and tells Sergey to stop talking to him in public. Sergey, who is about to leave the military in the near future, is crushed by this rejection.

It sets the tone for their relationship though. Every time Roman thinks that he will be “outed,” he distances himself from Sergey, who gets emotionally hurt, but then is willing to take Roman back when Roman is ready to resume their affair. Sergey is in love with Roman and wants to do whatever it takes to please him. And here’s the thing that makes Roman an even more despicable lout: Roman decides he’s going to marry Luisa, knowing that Sergey was kind of in love Luisa too, although Sergey’s romantic feelings for Luisa are not as strong as how Sergey feels about Roman.

Luisa, who has fallen deeply in love with Roman, has no idea that Sergey and Roman have been secretly hooking up with each other. Roman is not in love with Luisa. He’s only marrying her so that he can stop any speculation that he might be gay, and because he knows that having an image of being a heterosexual married man can benefit his career. Meanwhile, an emotionally tortured Sergey has to pretend to be happy for Luisa and Roman getting married, so that Luisa won’t get suspicious. Sergey even attends the wedding. Roman and Luisa eventually have a son together.

“Firebird” is an often-dreary slog of this very dysfunctional love triangle that has Roman calling all of the shots. Even after Sergey relocates to Moscow and tries to move on with his life without Roman, the chronically deceitful Roman finds a way back into Sergey’s life. In real life, a lot of people fall in love with people who are no good for them. It doesn’t mean that a movie has to make this type of toxic relationship look like true love. It isn’t true love. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.

Making matters worse for “Firebird,” the movie is very disjointed in how it tells this story. In the first third of the movie, there’s too much time spent on Sergey and his fellow conscripts going through boot camp-styled harassment, led by a homophobic and sadistic bully named Sergeant Janis (played by Markus Luik), who is physically and verbally abusive. Sergeant Janis particularly likes to target underlings whom he likes to accuse of being gay, if they can’t do what he tells them to do.

Most of the supporting cast members are adequate in their roles. The credibility problem is with the two “Firebird” lead actors. In the role of Sergey, Prior (who is British in real life) is never completely believable as someone from Eastern Europe, since his Eastern European accent is shaky at best. Meanwhile, as Roman, Zagorodnii gives the worst performance in the “Firebird” cast. Zagorodnii’s wooden acting drags down the film, and it makes viewers speculate that he must have been cast in this role mainly for his good looks.

And really, after a while, it’s hard to see what Sergey sees in Roman besides those good looks. Sergey is a loving and unselfish partner, but Roman is not treating Sergey as the great love of his life who deserves to be respected. Roman is treating Sergey like a “side piece” that Roman wants when it’s convenient for Roman. Viewers with enough life experience can see this mismatched relationship for what it is. These viewers won’t buy the “Sergey and Roman are soul mates” fantasy that “Firebird” is desperately trying to sell.

Roadside Attractions released “Firebird” in select U.S. cinemas on April 29, 2022. The movie is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on June 3, 2022. “Firebird” was released in Estonia in 2021.

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