Spent Thursday evening at the NYC premiere screening of Firebird, a Soviet-era gay romantic drama based on the true story of a young soldier's passionate affair with a fighter pilot in an oppressive culture, and an oppressive time in history.
I'd read some critics felt the film to be heavyhanded or a story we've seen before, but I disagree. Fair enough, it is a straightforward forbidden-love story, but as for originality, isn't the point that love is love? And does a reminder of that need to come with bells and whistles?
The performances of Prior as Sergey (who first presented his story in book form, and who died in 2017) and Oleg Zagorodnii (in real life a Ukrainian who was absent from the screening because he is defending his country) as Roman are a pleasing study in contrasts — Zagorodnii oozes movie-star charm, allowing the audience to fall for him as Sergey does, while Prior brings a naturally emo quality that makes him sympathetic, a stand-in for any gay man who's ever come of age.
The course of their love is anything but smooth, including the brutish meddling of a sadistic higher-up (Margus Prangel) and the innocent complication presented by their friend Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), who is tired of waiting for Sergey to notice her and winds up settling for Roman.
Lushly romantic and far more sensual than sexual (no clear butt shots, and the steamy sex is chaste compared to almost any hit series currently streaming), Firebird soars above any misgivings about simplicity or familiarity because it has heart, and that is all any effective romance needs to acquit itself. Theirs is a hot time in the Cold War, even if it is not fated to last.
The film is also beautifully shot, with extended swimming scenes and a recurring water motif.
At a Q&A after the event — Tom was in black leather pants, a black satin shirt and enormous white sneakers, every inch a star — Prior and Rebane talked about the relevance of the film in light of Don't Say Gay, its long journey (they met with the real-life Sergey in 2016 prior to his death) and why it wasn't shot in Russian.
Standout moment was when Prior mentioned that A Single Man was one of his gay-drama influences, saying it came out when he was about 18 or 19 (GULP):
Tom was very sweet when I shot the two of them, asking later what it was for (my stock agency, my day job and also here).