Gorbachev. Heaven

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Gorbachev. Heaven
"Many of the shots - a cuckoo clock here, a portrait on the wall there - play out almost as still lifes of a life."

This is not the first time a documentarian has sat down with former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev to try to find out what makes him tick - Werner Herzog also gave it a go with Meeting Gorbachev a few years ago. This time around it's the much more inquisitive Vitaliy Manskiy - once a national TV documentarian with plenty of insider access and now a fierce Kremlin critic - and with Gorbachev in worsening health, "Did you know that I almost kicked the bucket?" he tells the documentarian.

What follows has an elegiac sweep, as the camera observes the former president from a distance as he moves slowly about the home he once shared with his beloved wife Raisa, who died in 1999, and closer at hand as Manskiy chats to the 89-year-old. Many of the shots - a cuckoo clock here, a portrait on the wall there - play out almost as still lifes of a life. Gorbachev may still have a twinkly sense of humour but there's also something guarded about these discussions, an awareness of the fact, perhaps that the Kremlin's reach remains lengthy even though his daughter now lives in the US.

His failing health is also evident, not just in the use of a walker but later in the film, when the cameras follow him to hospital, capturing a vulnerability that gives the whole film a eulogistic quality.

Manskiy probes Gorbachev about his rise to power and the subsequent dissolving of the USSR, while the older man proves he's still an able tactician, slipping gently away from answering questions he doesn't like the sound of. "But you didn't say anything?" Manskiy declares at one point. "That's good," replies Gorbachev. When he does open up, he offers anecdotal rather than political insight, especially into the likes of Boris Yeltsin and Ronald Reagan, although Putin's regime is only obliquely referenced, he is, after all, retaining his beautiful home thanks to the good graces of the current 'king'.

A handful of intertitles offer some historic pointers, although some viewers might wish for more of them, while Putin maintains a presence in the film via glimpsed TV screens. In general, the documentary has an air of spectres at the feast - there's the ghost of Raisa, whom Gorbachev clearly misses terribly, but also a certain haunting from his own actions of the past, as he ruminates on socialism and Lenin. Manskiy may not get all the answers he is looking for from Gorbachev, particularly in political terms, but he delivers a humanistic portrait that offers insight without descending into hagiography.

Reviewed on: 25 Sep 2021
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Intimate portrait of the former Russian president.

Director: Vitaly Mansky

Writer: Vitaly Mansky

Starring: Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Latvia, Czech Republic

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