Imagine, if you will, a tense time where if the Air Force discovered one was in a same sex relationship, it was grounds to be locked away in prison for five years. Set under the domineering Soviet regime at the height of the Cold War, Firebird is a beautifully made love story that tugs at your heartstrings. I was shipping Sergey and Roman together from their very first scene.
Based on a true story, Private Sergey (the dashing and stunningly attractive Tom Prior) wants out of the air force. Despite an offer from the colonel to move up in the ranks, Sergey would rather return home to find work and leave the service for good. Though Sergey shares casual flirtation with secretary Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), it is not until brazen fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) that he finds a true romantic match. The two of them are initially drawn together via their love for photography, with Sergey inquiring if Roman would like to develop some film together. They get drunk and almost share a kiss. Roman talks Sergey into staying the night because he is wasted—“if you turn up at the barracks like this, you’ll be cleaning toilets for a week.” Fearful of the KGB and their homophobic commanders, with mounting pressures to marry women and stay hidden in the closet, Sergey and Roman must navigate the troubling waters of their love.
Both Oleg and Tom (who wrote the script with director Peeter Rebane) are great in their roles and imbue a sense of confidence and naïveté in each of their characters, respectively. Their relationship is full of highlights—a kiss shared in the woods as it begins to rain and an intimate close-up on their bodies as they jerk each other off in the water, punctuated by zooming aircraft. The latter is a tender sex scene that is not filmed in an exploitative way and instead, focuses on character above all else. When friction is introduced over being out of the closet and hiding one’s sexuality, Firebird dips into shocking complexity.
Someone files a report about the couple, and the KGB are nipping at their toes. One commander makes the promise to Roman that “I’ll personally make sure you never fly again” if there is any truth to the rumors about his sexuality. The most nail-biting sequence of all happens as this same commander ransacks Roman’s off-base home, searching for a lover that remains safely hidden away. The backdrop of the Cold War serves as host for a collection of thrilling and bold suspense moments, including one where Sergey helps to land a plane peacefully.
We ultimately get a meaningful finale that brings Firebird full circle and closes out in a way that reminded me of Brokeback Mountain. While the “four years later” segment in the final act is less engaging and fun to watch than what comes before, it is undoubtedly necessary in both its poignancy and urgency, and the film’s larger themes and narrative. Complete with a complicated love story that spans years and gorgeous cinematography and filmmaking technique, Firebird is a captivating and brilliant portrait of forbidden gay romance during the Cold War.
Firebird screened at the 2021 Frameline 45 film festival on June 27th.