It tells the story of two Russian boys whose father suddenly returns home after a 12-year absence. He takes the boys on a holiday to a remote island on a lake that turns into a test of manhood of almost mythic proportions. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
In contemporary Russia, Ivan and his older brother Andrei have grown a deep attachment to each other to make up for their fatherless childhood. Both their mother and grandmother live with them. After running home after a fight with each other, the boys are shocked to discover their father has returned after a 12-year absence. With their mother's uneasy blessing, Ivan and Andrei set out on what they believe will be a simple fishing vacation with him.
Andrei is delighted to be reunited with their father and Ivan is apprehensive towards the man whom they know only from a faded photograph.
At first, both brothers are pleased with the prospect of an exciting adventure, but they soon strain under the weight of their father's awkward and increasingly brutal efforts to make up for the missing decade. Ivan and Andrei find themselves alternately tested, rescued, scolded, mentored, scrutinized, and ignored by the man. Andrei seems to look up to his father while Ivan remains stubbornly defensive.
As the truck stops and cafés give way to rain-swept, primeval wilderness coastline, Ivan's doubts give way to open defiance. Andrei's powerful need to bond with a father he's never known begins, in turn, to distance him from Ivan. Ivan and his father's test of will escalates into bitter hostility and sudden violence after the trio arrives at their mysterious island destination.
Ivan has an outburst of anger after witnessing his father strike Andrei. He shouts at his father, runs into the forest, and climbs to the top of the observatory tower. Andrei and their father run after him. The father tries to talk with Ivan, but this only stresses Ivan further. He then threatens to jump down from the top of the tower. The father tries to reach out to him, but falls and dies.
Ivan and Andrei take the body across the forest, bring him on board the boat, and sail back to where they came. While the boys are putting their gear in the car, the boat starts to drift away. Andrei screams, "Papa!" and starts running towards the shore, followed by Ivan, but it is too late. The boat and the body are sinking. Ivan screams "Papa!" for the first and the last time from the bottom of his heart. They get into the car and drive away. The film ends with still images from their journey.
The Return was filmed on and around Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland. The budget of the film remains a secret, though in an interview the director and the producer hinted that it was well below $500,000. The director also mentioned that the producers made their money back even before it was screened at the Venice Film Festival. The film premiered in Russia on 16 October 2003, with the worldwide premiere taking place on 31 October 2003.