Dear Comrades!

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dear Comrades!
"A tribute to the fallen, and so fine an example of cinematic craft that it ensures they will not quickly be forgotten again." | Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

When we first encounter Lyuda (played by Yuliya Vysotskaya, wife of the director), we barely see her face. She's getting out of bed, watched by her lover Loginov (Vladislav Komarov), who is both married and her superior on the Party Committee. She's framed as the object of his gaze, a headless piece of statuary, bright light streaming into the timeless room and illuminating her curves as they discuss rising food prices and ritually reaffirm the party line to one another. The current shortages are just a minor hurdle on the path to great prosperity. In 2021, UK viewers may find this refrain familiar.

At home with her elderly father (Sergei Erlish) and teenage daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova), Lyuda doesn't seem much affected by the shortages. Her problems are those of many a middle class mother; her prejudices likewise. as she tries to police Svetka's sexuality and lets her own frustrations spill over. At work, she's more controlled. She has no patience with those who fail to prioritise the values of the revolution, little empathy for the angry crowds. The strongest measures must be taken to quell the strike at the city's factory, she says. It's only afterwards that she realises that Svetka might be with the strikers in the city square. By the time she gets there, bullets are flying in all directions. it's impossible to know where to run to stay safe. Some deeper instinct kicks in and she drags a wounded woman off the street, into the partial shelter of a hairdressing salon. From there, she can only watch.

Copy picture

The rest of the film follows Lyuda's increasingly frantic attempts to locate her daughter, aided by sympathetic KGB agent Viktor (Andrey Gusev). Director Andrey Konchalovskiy's focuses tightly on the disconnect between her emotional choices and her political ones. As in his 2016 film Paradise, he explores the horrors that ideology can unleash without losing sight of the human element. Lyuda is a monster but also a person with very ordinary, relatable concerns. In the real Novocherkassk massacre in 1962, at least 25 people died and 85 were injured, but the government would not admit it for another three decades. The dead had their whole existences erased.

Vysotskaya's restrained, careful performance is vital to bearing the weight of this tale. it's at odds with a tradition of passionate working class heroines in Russian cinema's historical epics. As Lyuda's composure gradually breaks down, Vysotskaya need do very little to convey a lot. Her psychic journey finds a parallel in Andrey Naydenov's cinematography, at first crisp and precise, then gradually shifting in focus as we enter what is both politically and physically more uncertain territory. Outside the city, we seem to have drifted further back in time. The elegant buildings whose windows we have seen shattered give way to broken down fences, uneven fields, the chaos of that which ideology demands must be forgotten.

Credit should also go to sound designer Polina Volynkina for the tension she generates and for her gift for understatement, which perfectly complements the dry humour of the film. There is that very Russian species of satire here, as we watch those who enforce the rules on others blithely breaking them in their own lives, making deals for contraband and exhibiting the sort of petty risk-taking behaviour - with potentially devastating consequences if they are taken to task - that helps us recognise them as human. Life goes on in the bleakest of circumstances. Much of Konchalovskiy's film is beautiful, suffused with the dazzling imagery that kept many Soviet citizens in a state of awe even when they were short of bread.

A tribute to the fallen, and so fine an example of cinematic craft that it ensures they will not quickly be forgotten again, Dear Comrades! also touches on something ubiquitous, on patterns of behaviour as relevant today as they ever were. It's a work of astonishing power and one you should make certain not to miss.

Reviewed on: 11 Jan 2021
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Dear Comrades! packshot
A devout communist witnesses a government shooting during a strike - which changes her life forever.

Director: Andrey Konchalovskiy

Writer: Elena Kiseleva, Andrey Konchalovskiy

Starring: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Vladislav Komarov, Alexander Maskelyne, Yuliya Vysotskaya, Vladislav Komarov, Alexander Maskelyne

Year: 2020

Runtime: 116 minutes

Country: Russia


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