Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. NEON releases the film in virtual cinemas on Friday, January 29.
The subject of “Dear Comrades!” stretches across the decades: On June 2, 1962, Soviet soldiers opened fire on workers in the city of Novocherkassk who were protesting for better living conditions and lower food prices. The Novocherkassk massacre ended with 26 people dead and buried in secret by KGB officials; it wasn’t until a 1992 investigation that the full scope of the violence came to light. Director Andrei Konchalovsky doesn’t need to follow the story that far. Instead, “Dear Comrades!” hovers in the immediacy of the disaster, with the vivid black-and-white saga of a Communist Party official whose own daughter goes missing in the chaos. Brimming with anger and intrigue, this fiery historical drama from a veteran Russian filmmaker revisits the tragedy with fresh immediacy, and gives it a human face.
That face belongs to Lyudmila (a tense Julia Vysotskaya), who has served as a loyal servant of the Communist Party for decades. “Dear Comrades!” follows her through nearly every scene, as the government braces for the first major labor strike and the ensuing demonstration before it tips into violence. Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva’s screenplay wastes no time presenting the conflicts at the center of her life: A loyal Stalinist and WWII veteran who resents the Khrushchev era, she defends the legacy of the former leader at every opportunity, watching the mounting protests with a frozen scowl. At the same time, she contends with backlash from her own teenage daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova), and when the protests erupt into violence, Lyudmila’s forced to confront her dueling allegiances to motherhood and the motherland in a sudden, harrowing eruption of chaos.
The use of crisp black-and-white imagery, constrained to a 1:33 aspect ratio, recalls Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” for the way it evokes the romanticism of a bygone era while giving it an ironic context. The myth of the unassailable Soviet machinery reaches a harsh reality check as the KGB struggles to contain the mounting protests, then goes into panic mode in the aftermath of the killings. Lyudmila sits in on many of these meetings, first as a kind of passive observer who encourages the authorities to rule with an iron fist, then as a terrified mother incapable of focusing on anything else.
With the town on lockdown and tanks roaming the streets, Lyudmila embarks on a frantic search to determine the fate of her missing child. As she goes from the city morgue to the outskirts of town, the suspense keeps rising, and troops swarm in. Aided by an enigmatic co-worker (Vladislav Komarov), Lyudmila endures a series of close calls as she gets closer to the awful truth about the cover-up, if not Svetka’s fate. The camera often sits close to Lyudmila’s face, watching her struggle through a set of dueling emotions that form the centerpiece of the movie as it builds to a remarkable final confrontation.
“Dear Comrades!” sometimes works a bit too hard to remind viewers of just how much Lyudmila has committed to the lost cause of her government’s priorities (“Had Stalin been around we’d already be living under communism!” she declares, in one of several terse reminders that she simply adored the guy.) However, Konchalovsky excels at building out the complex set of generational forces at work in Lyudmila’s household, from her angsty daughter to her batty military veteran father, who still wears his WWI outfit around the house like a rumpled echo of another bygone era. “Let it burn,” he tells her, as the city goes into lockdown.
Lyudmila’s husband, meanwhile, remains an ambivalent side character throughout; only Svetka seems to harbor enough passion to chase a better future. But Lyudmila only starts to grasp that once her daughter’s gone, and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance make it clear that the city might not be worth saving at all.
Many of these realizations unfold through complex visual schemes, with Lyudmila gazing off-frame at people or scenery that illuminates the contradictory nature of her circumstances. The movie excels at keeping us connected to the way one image flows into the next. Konchalovsky, the eclectic 83-year-old director whose credits range from co-writing “Andrei Rublev” to getting fired from “Tango and Cash” before giving up on Hollywood, displays confidence in the art of composition in frame after frame: The gradual buildup to the violent outbreak, which begins with the KGB escaping out the side door before Lyudmila rushes into the center of the madness, slides into a jarring revelation before the bloodshed begins. The pace is so swift that it’s impossible to take into account the full picture until Lyudmila gets a moment to breathe and think it through.
Konchalovsky doesn’t linger on the violence, but endows it with symbolic intensity. His camera captures much of those circumstances through a shattered window pane, as Lyudmila helps a wounded woman find shelter, and the frame-within-a-frame neatly encapsulates the sense of entrapment at hand. Later, unable to contain her anxiety in the midst of an energy meeting, she drifts to the bathroom and melts into a puddle of fright. It’s a fascinating transformation that helps smooth over some of the more obvious soul-searching dialogue (“What am I supposed to believe in, if not communism?”) and allows Lyudmila to become both symbolic of her country’s shifting identity as well as a complex figure waking up to the lies she has told herself for years.
“Dear Comrades!” may seem far-removed from the ominous impression of the Russian prowess today, when a new set of concerns about governmental secrecy roil the troubled regime. However, Lyudmila transcends the specific incident surrounding her transition. Gazing out at the future in the movie’s bracing finale, she embodies the complex blend of hope and fear at the center of a country unlikely to untangle that conflict anytime soon. It’s a movie about Russia’s past transgressions readymade to explore more recent ones: National soul-searching never really ends, but “Dear Comrades!” makes the case that the quest is always worthwhile.
“Dear Comrades” premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival.