Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Writer: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Andrei Guseve, Yulia Burova, Sergei Erlish, Vlaislav Komarov
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/28/21
Opens: January 29, 2021 in virtual cinema. February 5, 2021 streaming
Not only political candidates, but whole countries embarking on a new system of government promise the world in poetry and then govern in prose. In the U.S., a middle-class revolution beginning in 1776 seemed to guarantee that our nation would be the shining city on the hill, but slavery, the Civil War, and countless brutal and unnecessary wars of our various administrations in Washington belie those ideals. So it was with the Soviet Union.
Smarting under the tsarist monarchies that gave wealth and power to a small elite, the Russians fought through two revolutions that took the country out of World War One in violation of a treaty, soon winning a war between the Reds and the Whites. The Whites wanted moderate reforms, the Reds total overthow of the old system. The aim? A paradise of workers and farmers as symbolized by the hammer and sickle. Though Stalin built up a country that emerged from feudalism to win a war against Hitler, on the domestic side, no administration there gave the workers and farmers anything resembling a paradise. Instead, the Soviet Union forbade strikes, even gunning down workers with justifiable grievances though they might be unarmed, simply letting off steam about price increases on food and cuts in salaries.
“Dear Comrades” takes hold of this concept and through narrative film rather than documentary gives the moviegoing public a view in black and white to emulate the times in 1962. You might think the Soviet government would cover up a tragedy in which scores of people were gunned down for striking and others were compelled to keep the matter secret lest they suffer torture and execution. And cover up they did, except that now, in our year, Andrei Konchalovsky was given the freedom to expose the oppression of the workers 68 years ago, an unusual work for the man whose previous film, “Sin,” is about the life of the Italian artist Michelangelo. More up his alley is his “Paradise,” a World War 2 drama involving a Russian member of the French resistance, a French collaborator, and a high-ranking German officer.
Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya) anchors “Dear Comrades” in the city of Novocherkassk in the story of an actual event. A thousand workers walked out at a Soviet factory, which would make the local members of the Communist party look bad and lose their cushy jobs, so the city council, as it were, moved to blame the higher-ups; perhaps the KGB, maybe the army. Their jobs were on the line, as tensions escalated as both the Red Army and the KGB (secret police) fired live bullets at the demonstrators.
Lyudmila gets special favors as a party member (some are more equal than others) such as passing by a crowd of people trying to fill up their food baskets the normal way while Lyudmila heads into the back room for salami and the like. She is a Stalinist, believes Khrushchev is likely to cozy up to the Soviet Union’s adversaries. In fact she is more than happy to see the strikers shot dead, though her liberal daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova) wants to demonstrate with the strikers. Lyudmila is horrified that her daughter might be among the scores of people killed by snipers from the army and the KGB. She searches the morgue and when bodies disappear from there presumably driven to the countryside, she is all but certain that her daughter has been buried. She has the good luck of being befriended by a KGB man sympathetic to her cause.
Throughout the film we watch as the local people are made to sign statements of confidentiality: the shootings never happened and neither did the strike. This is a deadly serious drama:The closest thing to humor in the movie is the sight of Lyudmila’s grandfather who proudly puts on the army costume he used when he defended the tsar.
The big plus for the film is the sight of hundreds of extras hired by the movie company rather than having the studio resort to using archival shots. Here in the U.S. we continue to face a diminishing number of strikes given the economy and the purported easy of replacing recalcitrant workers. Yet more to the moment we cannot help thinking that the alt-right characters who invaded the Capitol on January 6th might have suffered a similar fate if our previous President gave the word, but given that the white supremacists are in bed with their billionaire leader, such could hardly befall them.
120 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B