At the time that this review is being written, Russia, its maniacal leader, its unnecessary war on Ukraine, and the potential for greater escalation, are very much on people’s minds.
Therefore, the release of the Russia-set military and gay-themed movie “Firebird” (Roadside Attractions) couldn’t be timelier.
Based on a true story, “Firebird” opens in 1977 on the Haapsalu Air Force Base in Soviet-occupied Estonia, where young, sensitive soldier Sergey (hot Tom Prior), known for his photography, is navigating his way through the final days of his service. Well-liked by his superior, Colonel Kuznetsov (Nicholas Woodeson), Sergey nevertheless declines his request to stay on, preferring to return home and find work or attend school. As punishment (or reward?), Sergey is given additional duties in his final weeks.
Lucky for him, that includes looking after newly arrived Lieutenant Roman Matvejev (Oleg Zagorodnii), a model-handsome pilot. Roman, who saw Sergey taking pictures, and shares the younger soldier’s interest in photography, give Sergey a roll of film after he drives him to his barracks. Before long, Roman offers Sergey the use of his darkroom.
Sexual tension develops during the increased time they spend together. Roman takes Sergey off base to see a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s “Firebird” ballet after Sergey tells Roman about his interest in theater and performing. It’s only a matter of time before their shared attraction results in a passionate kiss.
But before you think things will go smoothly for the pair, there are obstacles in the way. Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), a secretary for a high-ranking officer, is more interested in Sergey than he is in her. Additionally, homophobic Major Zverev (Margus Prangel) is suspicious of Roman and watches him like a hawk. At one point, disinterested in hiding his desire to make things difficult for Roman, Zverev informs him about Article 121 of the Criminal Code, which reads “sexual relations of a man with another man is punishable by five years in hard labor camp.” A report implying that Roman is partaking in immoral conduct with a private is delivered to Colonel Kuznetsov, but it is dismissed as “malicious gossip.” The major remains undeterred.
After Roman survives a plane malfunction during a mission, he and Sergey are reunited and finally have sex. It’s a hot scene, but we could do without some of the heavy-handed airplane symbolism. When Zverev shows up at Roman’s apartment, Sergey hides in the darkroom, narrowly avoiding getting caught by the hateful and obsessed officer.
There is a noticeable change in Roman after that as he displays a coldness towards Sergey who is still smitten with him. As Sergey’s training comes to its conclusion, he makes plans to audition for drama school in Moscow.
A year later, as he is excelling in school, Luisa pays him a visit on campus. She has deferred attending medical school, is still working for the colonel, and — wait for it — is engaged to marry Roman. Luisa invites Sergey to the wedding, which he attends. Kuznetsov misconstrues the reason that Sergey is getting progressively drunk as his being in love with Luisa, not Roman. When Sergey and Roman finally talk at the reception (where they are almost discovered by Zverev), Roman tells him that Luisa is pregnant, further sealing their fates apart.
Four years later, Roman attends a performance of a play starring Sergey. He tells Sergey that he has rented an apartment for the two of them. After initially resisting, Sergey picks up where he left off with Roman. They go on a seaside vacation together. Back at the apartment, they throw a party where their worlds — actors and pilots — seemingly get along. But when Sergey’s old military pal Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) discovers Roman and Sergey kissing, all hell breaks loose, and it’s revealed that it was Volodja who had written the negative report about Roman.
As you may have surmised, there is even more heartache in store for the star-crossed lovers, making “Firebird” a three-hankie affair. Because it’s based on a true story, it is somehow more upsetting and poignant. Prior and Zagorodnii make a convincing, and very attractive, couple. The one negative is the portrayal of Zverev who comes through as a cross between Boris Badenov and Rosa Klebb. Dedicated to the memory of the real Sergey (Fetisov), “Firebird” concludes with information about the 1993 annulment of Article 121, replaced in 2013 (under Putin, of course) with a new law that bars “homosexual propaganda.”
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.