Film Review: The Gift to Stalin

BOTTOM LINE: Traditional story on Stalinist era celebrates innate human goodness.

Pusan International Film Festival
Opening film

BUSAN, South Korea -- In "The Gift to Stalin," Rustem Abdrashev unearths a harrowing chapter of ethnic persecution in postwar Soviet years, but he softens the bitterness and moral condemnation by recounting it through the nostalgic memories of a child. The titular "gift" is a nuclear test carried out in Kazakhstan in August 1949 in honor of Stalin's 70th birthday -- a gift as murderous as Chernobyl or Hiroshima.

A work of old-fashioned, wholesome goodness celebrating virtue in adversity, this film has a broad reach for general family viewers and humanitarian-themed festivals. Japan is a high-potential market, where anything condemning nuclear weapons can find a sympathetic audience.

Confident in the subject's weightiness and power to move on an elemental level, Abdrashev and screenwriter Pavel Finn take the road most traveled in a traditional narrative shorn of any stylistic originality or political controversy.

The protagonist is a Jewish boy, Sashka, who has been relocated to Central Asia from Moscow soon after his parents' arrest. Subtitles in closing credits indicate that he was one of more than 1.2 million minorities uprooted in that era. During a stopover on the train journey, the ailing boy is nearly buried together with his grandfather and others who died under the dreadful traveling conditions.

He is rescued by Kasym, a one-eyed Muslim railway worker, who gives him the name Sabyr, meaning "humble." He is initiated into the village's core surrogate family of exiled "unwanted elements": Vera, the wife of a "traitor"; Ezhik, the Polish medic; and a gang of mixed-race homeless teen boys. References to their different religious backgrounds emphasize an idealistic world of tolerance and inner godliness surviving in the monolithic Stalinist regime.

The main story is narrated like a diary by the middle-aged Sashka. Occasionally shifting to the present, where he wanders through his spiritual homeland Jerusalem, it occasionally cuts away to shots of a stray goat, prompting the memory of a pet baby goat that the boy Sashka offered naively to a cadre as Stalin's birthday present in exchange for his parents' release.

The symbolic meaning of the goat as a sacrificial lamb resounds loud and clear in an unexpected and shattering denouement, when a village gathering to commemorate Stalin's birthday is intercut with shots of the A-bomb's explosion. The implication of the orphaned Sashka's relationship with the grandfatherly Kasym assumes a deeper meaning in contrast to the paternalistic, falsely paternal role of Stalin, whose portrait rattles in the gust caused by the radioactive aftershock.

With the exception of one sensational scene of personal vendetta and bloodshed that suffers from tonal inconsistency to the overall quiet grace, the film is essentially a dreamy pastoral of Kazakhstan rural life. The fancy-free, well-composed cinematography captures its vulnerable human subjects against the vast barren landscape accompanied by a folksy stringed score playing the saddest music in the world. The screen is lit up by the winsome presence of child actor Dalen Shintemirov, who speaks volumes with his soulful, deep-set eyes.

Characterization in the film is completely black-and-white, with Kasym (played with unforced dignity by Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev) like a gentle giant whose kindness shines through his gnarled face and Vera like a virtuous Madonna, pure even when violated. Figures of authority, like the local policeman and central government cadres, are all presented as thuggish and officious.

Cast: Dalen Shintemirov, Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev, Yekaterina Rednikova.
Director: Rustem Abdrashev.
Screenwriter: Pavel Finn.
Producer: Boris Cherdabayev.
Director of photography: Khasan Kidiraliev.
Production designer: Alexander Rorokin.
Music: Kuat Shildebayev.
Editor: Sylvain Coutandin.
Sales agent: Nikola-film.
No rating, 99 minutes.
Production companies: Aldongar Prods., Krzysztof Zanussi and Tor Film Prods.