Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! bows online this weekend, including via SIFF’s Virtual Cinema.
The shape of Dear Comrades! is the Academy ratio of 1:33, that boxy outline that has unexpectedly made a comeback in recent years, an oddball choice for a 16:9 world. The shape worked brilliantly for Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, movies where the narrow space made sense for the limited perspective of the characters. Now it’s beginning to look like a fad, and I’m not exactly certain why Dear Comrades! has to be in this frame.
But sure, why not: Set in the Soviet Union in 1962, the film does, after all, describe the hapless state of people caught in a totalitarian state that is chaotic but nowhere near exhausted. It is the latest from Tango & Cash director Andrei Konchalovsky, and if I have a little fun by invoking that title from his Hollywood period, it’s only to suggest how far, and how crazily, Konchalovsky’s career has roamed from his origins. Dear Comrades! exudes a kind of bewildered, not-entirely-digested grasp of the absurd, and maybe it helps to know that Konchalovsky started out writing with Andrei Tarkovsky (including Andrei Rublev), and eventually directed Whoopi Goldberg, to understand his taste for madness.
The new film stars Yulia Vysotskaya, Konchalovsky’s wife—his fifth, so blend that into the picture, too. She’s a huge talent, as she proved in live-wire performances in her husband’s House of Fools and Paradise, and she keeps this movie arresting even when the point of it all slips sideways. Her character, Lyuda, is a bureaucrat in Novocherkassk, a believer in Communism but not averse to exploiting her privileged position to jump the queue when getting rationed food items. Her teenage daughter works at the factory, and along with the food shortages, the workers go on strike, storming the very building where Lyuda works. A massacre follows, and so does a very Soviet-style erasure of the violence from all official records.
With a historical massacre in his scenario (at least 26 people died), Konchalovsky is flirting with the ghost of Battleship Potemkin, and there are moments when he appears to be calling back to Eisenstein’s indelible imagery, though he does not try to imitate the master’s rapid-fire montage. (There is one moment, a cut from a wild dog suckling her puppies to the roiling crowd in motion, that feels inspired by Eisenstein’s Strike.) It’s in the film’s final half-hour, as Lyuda goes searching for her daughter, that the movie loses its forward motion but becomes more intriguing; the feeling of being absolutely at sea in the midst of political chaos is piercing. Konchalovsky is an octogenarian—he worked uncredited on the script to Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which was released the same year as the massacre—and the helplessness in Lyuda’s confused bearing has the ring of authenticity.
This director does not have a light hand. But, after all, there are things in Dear Comrades! that demand a Strangelove-ian directness, like the official who, upon hearing that the summer heat is causing the asphalt streets to be permanently stained with blood, blithely tells his underling to pour more asphalt. And when, during the massacre, Lyuda pulls inside a beauty salon, blood running on the floor as a statue of Lenin outside is perfectly framed through the large picture window, it seems like Konchalovsky is finally finding his eye. Future filmmakers covering the Soviet experience will only be able to guess at the mood of the time; this movie knows it first-hand.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.