Based on true events, Firebird is a story of forbidden love, set on an air force base in Russian-occupied Estonia at the height of the Cold War. Director Peeter Rebane and co-producer Tom Prior co-wrote the screenplay from the memoir written by one of the protagonists, the late Sergey Fetisov. Rebane and Prior even had the opportunity to interview Fetisov before his passing in 2017.
Prior (The Theory of Everything) stars as Sergey, a private wrapping up his last few weeks of his conscription. He is secretly loved by Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), a secretary on the base. Luisa is certain that their future involves marriage, but Sergey is less sure of what he wants to do after he gets out. He’d planned to go to acting school, and he still holds that hope dearly. But fighter pilot Roman Medveyev (Oleg Zagordnii) arrives, they both find themselves attracted to him.
The men sharer a mutual love of photography and the arts, and Roman takes Sergey to see a performance of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” and it moves the young man very much. On the way back to the base, they must hide from border guards, and they find themselves spontaneously sharing an impassioned kiss.
Their romance ensues with clandestine meetings and late-night swims. This is at a time when sex between two men could be punished by five years of hard labor.
Suspecting nothing, Luisa inserts herself between them at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the tough-as-nails KGB Major Zverev (Margus Prangel), who job is to watch for any suspicious behavior, suspects something unsavory is going on with the new pilot.
The actors are all fine in their roles. Prior and Zagordnii are captivating — especially Prior, who registers so much emotion with his doe-like eyes. The relationship is authentic and plausible. As the film covers many years, it begins to take on a Brokeback Mountain quality, as the men drift apart, only to be drawn to one another again.
The Estonian locations are well-utilized, and there’s some spectacular seaside scenery. Though the cityscape of Estonia has modernized with the times, the filmmakers managed to locate old mining villages with the right period look. The score by Krzysztof A. Janczak and cinematography by Mait Mäekivi are excellent.
The closing credits remind us of how intolerant Russia still is of the LGTBQ community, with Putin signing an “anti-gay propaganda” law in 2013.
Simultaneously epic and intensely personal, Firebird is available to stream on the Outfest site from now until Tuesday, Aug. 24.