A touch of the master’s hand guides Dear Comrades. This starkly composed film by Andrey Konchalovskiy is Russia’s submission in the Oscar race for Best International Feature. It’s one to watch. This sort of film is catnip for voters and arthouse audiences alike.
Dear Comrades dramatizes a massacre that occurred in a small Soviet town in 1962. It witnesses the rift between idealism and reality as Communist Party stalwart Lyuda (Julia Vysotskaya) confronts her comrades’ inhumane treatment of the people it claims to protect. Lyuda and her fellow party officials find themselves taken by surprise by a strike at a local factory. The Lenin-loving workers want better wages to cope with the growing rift in the sustainability of communist ideals. The film opens with a striking sequence in which Lyuda embarks on the daily grind of grocery shopping, navigating a mob of hungry shoppers. She can afford sugar and candy from a private dealer, though, despite noting the rising costs. It’s clear that the party doesn’t deliver upon its message of shared bread.
Echoes of Eisenstein
The Communist comrades meet and squabble about the factory. They dismiss the workers’ concerns and carry on. However, word of a strike reaches the party headquarters and the officials soon find themselves surrounded by a proletariat uprising.
As Lyuda and others get ready to flee, however, a shot rings out. The strikers scatter as bullets fly. People drop, one by one. Chaos ensues. For Lyuda, the ordeal is especially terrifying as she knows her daughter is in the crowd. The cameras follow Lyuda to the dangers of ground level and observes as she frantically searches for her daughter.
The massacre sequence is the centrepiece of Dear Comrades and it’s a finely executed feat of cinema. The disorderly commotion recalls the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin with its strikingly realized portrayal of the masses in chaos. Konchalovskiy and cinematographer Andrey Naidenov film much of the massacre from a fixed position in a barbershop bordering the town square. The camera witnesses Lyuda and others scurrying around, evading bullets, and running for their lives. But the walls and the window frame allow one to see only so much, which foreshadows the way in which official stories are obscured or buried. The window also accentuates the film’s dark sense of humour. Bullets cruelly pass through the glass, taking one life after another in this seemingly safe space.
The Absurdity of It All
The real hell comes after, though, when Lyuda tries to find her daughter as bodies begin to disappear. This search reveals to her the perverse practices of her party. While she continues to uphold Communist ideals and rhetoric—they’re clearly ingrained on her being—the horror she encounters doesn’t jive with what she preaches. Lyuda can’t be bothered to recognize unfairness and inequality unless it affects her directly. However, the closer she comes to the truth about her daughter’s life, the more she reveals her own life as a lie.
Vysotskaya carries most of Dear Comrades with an impassioned performance. Lyuda’s world shatters with the retort of the first gunshot, and Vysotskaya creates her protagonist’s psychological unravelling delicately. It’s a restrained and controlled performance, as one would have to be stiff within Khrushchev’s ranks, and resonates strongly when Lyuda’s veneer breaks.
Konchalovskiy’s direction is equally precise and controlled. Dear Comrades is chiefly a director’s piece with tightly composed black-and-white images that evoke Soviet films of the era. The striking, austere cinematography uses deep focus to capture the orderly and measured character of the Communist regime. There are also overtones of Stanley Kubrick, most notably Dr. Strangelove, with Konchalovskiy’s meticulous staging that finds dark humour amid the organised chaos. As Dear Comrades confronts the government’s lies and cover-ups, absurdity is the only tone with which to strike.
Dear Comrades is now playing via TIFF’s digital cinema.