Venice 2020 review: Dear Comrades! (Andrei Konchalovsky)

June 1962. It is the early days of summer in Novocherkassk, Russia, and something bad is brewing. Dairy prices have hiked up while wages have gone down, and discontent is growing. Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya), a hardline Communist Party official on the city’s central committee, discusses this behind closed doors with her boss. The bedroom door, to be precise, as she is also sleeping with him. Lyudmila’s privilege as a party official allows her to get first pick of the rationed food items at the local store. Meanwhile, at home she is in constant rows with her teenage daughter Svetka (Julia Burova), a worker at the local electric locomotive factory. Life seems to take its normal course, but reliant on nonsensical reports that never show anything wrong because that simply could not be in the Soviet Union, the city’s party officials miss the growing unrest among Novocherkassk’s people until it is too late.

The unrest comes to a boiling point as workers at the locomotive factory go on strike. This is seen as a disgrace for the party and for Khrushchev himself, or so Lyudmila and the other officials are told. The army is brought in to contain the situation, but the workers storm the committee’s offices and there is no sign of containment. The state decides to grab for the ultimate option and open fire on the crowd. Chaos and massacre ensue. In the aftermath Lyudmila realizes Svetka has gone missing and goes on a desperate search for her daughter, aided by a friendly KGB agent (Vladislav Komarov). Now she has to face the bureaucracy and people’s fear to talk under a repressive regime, and her odyssey slowly drives her crazy as the world she thought she knew, and indeed herself created, starts to turn against her.

Dear Comrades! is both an accurate retelling of a Russian historical event that was swept under the rug at the time, as well as a depiction of the realization of Soviet citizens that their communist ideals were not congruent with the realities they faced when they became victims of such an event. The latter is personified by central character Lyudmila, superbly portrayed by director Andrei Konchalovsky’s wife and mainstay Vysotskaya. A blind devotee to the party, Lyudmila pines for the days under Stalin rule when it was clear “who is an enemy and who is one of us.” When her fellow party officials start to waver Lyudmila keeps her focus on party goals. But after her daughter goes missing and things become personal, the scales fall from her eyes and she herself falls victim to the slow grind of Soviet bureaucracy and the cruelty of its apparatchiks, which throws Lyudmila into an existential crisis of sorts.

Konchalovsky strived for historical authenticity in order to create a strong dissonance to the Soviet films of the era it depicts, often films that were naked propaganda for the Soviet system. Shooting in black and white and at Academy ratio, cinematographer Andrey Naidenov eschews too much use of crisp and contrasted shadows in lieu of using the bright summer light to render the feel of Soviet films of the time. Scenes of the crowds outside the factory or of the actual massacre are shot detached and interspersed with close-ups in the crowd, again mimicking ’60s Soviet cinema. All this creates distance from the events so we can focus on the personal plight of Lyudmila, one face in the crowd, as if to suggest there were a thousand Lyudmilas in Novocherkassk in early June of 1962.

There are a few niggles that mar Dear Comrades! The extras in the film seem to have been taught at the Marion Cotillard School of Death Acting (for those who remember her oft-ridiculed death scene in The Dark Knight Rises) which creates an incongruent and unintended comical effect, but this is a minor nitpick. That the film starts to drag in the third act during Lyudmila’s search for Svetka is anything but, and in a sense this is a reflection of the endless bureaucracy of the era, but Dear Comrades! only picks up in the final fifteen minutes as her search comes to a dramatic end. At some point one gets numb to yet more instances of petty repression and state bureaucracy, probably much like Soviet citizens did in 1962. Still, these criticisms aside, Dear Comrades! is Konchalovsky’s strongest film in ages, a gripping portrait of motherly love overcoming blind devotion to a repressive system painted against a background of Soviet soul searching through its recent history.