DEAR COMRADES!

Producers: Alisher Usmanov and Andrei Konchalovsky  Director: Andrei Konchalovsky   Screenplay: Andrei Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva   Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Vladislav Komarov, Andrei Gusev, Yulia Burova, Sergei Erlish and Dmitry Kostyaev   Distributor: Neon

Grade: A

Russian writer-director Andrei Konchalovsky’s career has been a strange one, his films ranging from highbrow efforts like “Uncle Vanya” (1970) and intriguing failures like “Sky People” (1987) to dumb action movies like “Tango & Cash” (1989) and complete misfires, the worst being the grotesque “The Nutcracker in 3D” (2010).  His latest may be his best, a searing recreation of a long-suppressed massacre in the Soviet Union that is also a potent personal story of disillusionment and grief. 

On June 2, 1962, a crowd of protestors in the city of Novocherkassk, regarded as the cultural capital of the Cossacks, were fired upon by KGB and Army forces.  Estimates of those killed range from twenty-six (in the official investigation) to up to eighty.  The previous day a strike had been declared by workers at the city’s Electromotive Building Factory over increases in production quotas coupled with hikes in food prices, and local and national Communist Party officials had assembled to deal with what was deemed an insurrection.  In addition to the casualties, hundreds were arrested and tried.  News of the event was suppressed by the government, and only in 1992 was an official investigation opened and the massacre became public knowledge.

Konchalovsky has spared no effort in restaging the massacre, even building a simulacrum of the original town square where it occurred because the real thing had undergone major alterations in the passing years.  But the actual event, as staged by the director, shot by Andrey Naidenov and edited by Sergei Taraskin and Karolina Maciejewska, is shown in brilliantly oblique fashion, much of it seen from a single static spot in a beauty salon as events unfold outside and bullets shatter the windows, sometimes finding a human target.

That’s because the event is reflected through the perspective of Lyudmila “Lyuda” Syomina (Julia Vysotskaya), a widow who’s a member of the town council, a committed Marxist who still reveres Stalin but is a member of the elite that has special privileges, including first claim to goods.  That brings her into conflict with her eighteen-year old daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova), who works at the factory and is determined to join the protest against her mother’s wishes.

When the strike erupts, Lyuda takes a firm stand, demanding that the most stringent action be taken against those she sees as hooligans—a stand stronger even than that embraced by the council head (and her lover) Loginov (Vladislav Komarov), who is understandably concerned about the effect the unrest will have on his position.  Tensions escalate as the volatile district head Bastov (Dmitry Kostyaev) arrives and the KGB and military are called in.  A team from the Kremlin eventually takes charge.  And what follows is the violence of June 2, which sends the local officials scurrying to safety as protectors break into the seat of their government and the authorities respond with force.

The effects are devastating.  We watch as bodies are carted off, and the asphalt on the square replaced when the blood can’t simply we washed away.  We see soldiers and KGB figures like Viktor (Andrei Gusev) brutally track down suspects and take them into custody while demanding pledges of secrecy from witnesses under pain of extreme punishment.

And the impact on Lyuda is deeply personal.  She’s watched the suppression of the protest unfold from that salon, and seen people die.  She’s frantic to find her daughter, who’s disappeared, visiting the hospital in an attempt to look at corpses and see the injured.  She finds no solace at home, where her aged father (Sergei Erlish) grows increasingly vocal about the cruelties perpetrated by Soviets in their home region over the years and even resurrects memories of the old religion, and where Viktor shows up in search of Svetka.

The last act of the film is dominated by Lyuda’s desperation as she’s assisted by Viktor in her efforts to find her daughter, even to the extent of trying to leave the blockaded city to reach the location where, according to rumors, bodies have been taken for secret burial.  What they discover in the process shatters her old certainties. 

Some may find the ambiguity here, particularly in terms of Viktor’s motivation, problematic, and may be even more troubled by a twist Konchalovsky adds at the very end.  But he’s uncompromising in showing the extremes the authorities took in trying to whitewash the unthinkable revolt of workers against “their” state by staging a dance in the city in the aftermath of the protest.  The contrast between public celebration and personal pain is wrenching.       

The performances, especially by Vysotskaya, are extraordinarily powerful, and the recreation of the physical reality by production designer Irina Ochina is equally remarkable.  This is a nonfiction film, but the documentary feel is palpable, as it was, for example, in Paul Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday.”

“Dear Comrades!”—in the original Russian “Dorogie tovarishchi!,” a term of address that the film depicts as a cynical ploy—is one of the year’s finest films, and a triumph for Konchalovsky.