'Dear Comrades!' ('Dorogie Tovarischi!'): Film Review | Venice 2020


'Dear Comrades'

An important reminder of a Soviet horror swept under the rug.

Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky revisits a 1962 state massacre of striking factory workers, which becomes the chilling turning point in the life of apparatchik Julia Vysotskaya.

Taking Soviet films from the past as its model, Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! (Dorogie Tovarischi!) pinpoints a moment in history when people’s unquestioning belief in the high-minded principles of the Communist party wavered as evidence to the contrary mounted and personally impacted their lives. Although at first sight this dramatization of a 1962 strike at a factory in the U.S.S.R. may seem a long way from the interests of contemporary audiences, it is surprising how much resonance the film has with the political struggles of our own time.

Though it lacks the invention and poignancy to become another Cold War, it certainly stirs up enough emotion to ripple the festival scene. And in a year when Venice competition seems weighted toward political subjects, it may prove one of the best of the crop, with much credit due to Julia Vysotskaya and her uncommonly gripping perf in the main role. She won multiple awards for Konchalovsky’s 2016 Holocaust-set romance Paradise, and here she evokes the contradictions between motherhood and ideology with a toughness one can relate to.

The sticking point for many audiences is going to be the director’s decision to shoot the story of the strike in the idiom of the elliptical, heavily censored Soviet films of the period, all the way through to a happy ending that deliberately rings hollow. The point is to immerse viewers in the atmosphere of the day, which it does, though as a salute to the stirring films of the 50s and 60s like Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, the drama seems a little low-key. And while DP Andrei Naydenov’s high contrast black and white cinematography is a real pleasure to look at, the familiar tropes of stiff-backed comrades in boardrooms, audiences enthusiastically applauding speeches and long back-and-forth conversations in moving cars inevitably spell old-fashioned.

The story, set in the region of the Don river, dramatizes a terrible but (in the West) little-known historical incident when, crushed between rising food prices and plummeting wages, angry workers in Novocherkassk staged a mass walk-out at a Soviet factory. The strike, unheard-of in the supposed workers' paradise, shocks everyone and throws the local party honchos for a loop. Seeing their cushy jobs on the line, they call in the Kremlin and try to shift blame to higher-ups. When the KGB arrives and puts sharpshooters on the roof and the Red Army blocks off all roads to and from the town, the tension reaches a peak. With live ammo trained on the protesters, the stage is set for a massacre.

Konchalovsky and co-writer Elena Kiseleva view the drama through the eyes of the 40-year-old Lyudmila (Vysotskaya), an attractive blonde hardened by life and severe tailoring, who is a committed party bureaucrat. Soaring food prices are expertly sketched in her visit to a swamped grocery store, where she asserts her privileges as a member of the local party committee — not to mention as the mistress of the committee chairman — to get the best goodies without waiting in line.

The time is 1962 and Stalin is dead, but Lyudmila still remembers him fondly and thinks the current premier, Nikita Khrushchev, is a dangerous liberal. Not so her bright 18-year-old daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova), who taunts mom that since they live in a democracy, they have freedom of assembly and the right to protest. And she intends to take part in the strikers’ march.

Lyudmila furiously rebuts that she fought the war in Stalin’s name. Her conviction that the strikers deserve “the extreme penalty” for disloyalty to the state reaches the ears of the big shots who arrive from Moscow to sort things out. The worst follows.

Konchalovsky’s recreation of the massacre, in which dozens were killed and hundreds wounded, is fast-paced and stomach-churning, especially when Lyudmila realizes her daughter is missing.

And when the shooting stops, a huge cover-up begins. Bodies disappear from the morgue and the hospital staff gets a gag order. Now a mother wracked with angst and uncertainty, Lyudmila is befriended by a dashing KGB man who helps her search for Svetka, even at the cost of breaking the law.

A memorable character, who lurks in the background of Lyudmila’s apartment, is her elderly father, a man who decidedly did not fight for Stalin and who has reached a mental point beyond hope or pain. His revisionist p.o.v. on Soviet history is echoed in a comment on Mikhail Sholokhov’s famous novel And Quiet Flows the Don: “Sholokhov didn’t write the truth. All this needs to be discussed.”

Production companies: Andrei Konchalovsky Studios
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Andrei Gusev, Yulia Burova, Sergei Erlish, Vladislav Komarov
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Screenwriters: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Producer: Alisher Usmanov
Director of photography: Andrey Naidenov
Production designer: Irina Ochina
Costume designers: Konstantin Mazur
Editors: Karolina Maciejewska, Sergei Taraskin
Casting: Elina Ternyeva
World sales: Films Boutique
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
120 minutes