'Dear Comrades' (2020) presented in world wide premiere at the Venice Film Festival where it won the special jury award proves that at the age of 83 Andrey Konchalovskiy is not satisfied with just being a living legend. The screenwriter of the first films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the director who joined Tarkovsky and his own younger brother Nikita Mikhalkov in making outstanding movies in the '70s that signaled in cinema, before Gorbachev's 'glasnost', the thaw that was to come, has returned to Russia in the last decades after a stormy stage in Hollywood and makes a significant film every few years. 'Dear Comrades' is one of the best of his career, a haunting description of a dark episode of totalitarian repression in the Soviet era, a film that can be said to come a few decades too late but is still relevant today, as any good lesson in history is important in the actuality. It is in any case a remarkable film both in content and in the way the message is transformed into images and transmitted to viewers.
The confusion of values and the gap between ideals and reality dominate the film. The period in which the action takes place is one of those considered relatively 'liberal' in the history of the USSR, the one in which Khrushchev was in power. He had denounced Stalin's crimes (to which he had been an accomplice at least through passivity) after his death, but continued a policy of competition with the West outside and of repression inside. In order to achieve their ambitious economic plans, the Soviet leaders subjected the population to severe economic shortages and any attempt at revolt was suppressed, if necessary by force. Confusion reigned among the population. "In Stalin's time, prices were falling, now they are rising," we hear Soviet citizens in the Don area where the film's action takes place complaining. Young people and workers naively believe in the apparent democratization and in the rights enshrined in the Constitution, but when they claim them and resort to strikes and demonstrations to protest against economic problems, the response of the party and of and its tools of repression are bullets and arrests. Lyuda, the main heroine of the film (played exceptionally by Yuliya Vysotskaya) is an activist in the city party committee, not very important in rank, but significant enough to benefit from direct supply from food warehouses while her fellow citizens stand in endless lines for anything . She is indoctrinated and longs for Stalin ('in his time I knew who the enemies were'). When her daughter (Yuliya Burova), a factory worker, disappears after the demonstrations are stifled in blood, her devotion to the party is put to the test. Her disabled and alcoholic father (Sergei Erlish) keeps in his chest the uniform of the Cossack and the icon of the Mother of God on the Don, connections hidden in fear with a past that the authorities want forgotten and buried. Ideological dilemmas and gaps dominate the relations between generations in the conditions in which truth cannot be spoken even between parents and children within the walls of their own homes.
The cinematography is cold, almost documentary. Konchalovskiy uses black and white film and the 4: 3 screen format specific to the Mosfilm studios in the years when the story takes place. The endless meetings of the party bureaucracy, corruption and cowardice of activists, the intervention of the leaders of the 'center', food queues and material deprivation, fear of the KGB, all these will be familiar to spectators who lived in the Eastern Europe before the fall of Communism. Humanity appears where we do not expect it - human gestures of solidarity of simple people, the refusal of some officers to arm their soldiers against the workers, the KGB member who helps Lyuda in the most difficult moments. What seems different is the ideological confusion that the characters seem to be dominated by. Lyuda is unable to live in a different system of reference than the communist one ('without communism what are we left with?'). Adoration of Stalin seems to be a kind of Stockholm complex that escapes any logic. Konchalovskiy doesn't even try to explain it. Can this attitude be considered a symbol of Russia's history in the last century? The answers are left to the spectators.