Veteran film-maker, screenwriter, theatre and TV director Andrei Konchalovsky’s career is nothing if not eclectic. He co-wrote Tarkovsky’s 1966 classic Andrei Rublev, while his directorial CV ranges from an acclaimed 1970 adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to Venice prize winners The Postman’s White Nights and Paradise, via the Kurosawa-originated white-knuckle thriller Runaway Train and the ill-fated Hollywood buddy cop action film Tango & Cash, from which he was removed mid-shoot.
Konchalovsky’s latest (once again feted at Venice) is among his finest work, a harrowing drama set in 1962, in the provincial USSR town of Novocherkassk. Julia Vysotskaya plays Lyudmila (AKA Lyuda), a stalwart party official who served as a battlefield nurse during the second world war, and who retains a nostalgic devotion to Stalinist ideals in the age of Khrushchev. “What am I supposed to believe in if not communism?” Lyuda asks, as her political devotions are challenged in the fallout of a factory strike and protest, to which the army and/or KGB (precise attribution is a thorny issue to be wrestled with) respond with deadly force. As the authorities rush to cover up a state-sponsored atrocity, Lyuda searches for her missing teenage daughter, Svetka (Yulia Burova), for whose life she fears in the wake of terrible violence.
The horrifying events in Novocherkassk upon which Dear Comrades! is based (briefly reported in Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago) were not officially acknowledged or investigated for 30 years. Significant, then, that Yuri Bagrayev, who led the investigator’s team in 1992, acted as a consultant on the script, co-written by Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva. Meanwhile, Konchalovksy cites films such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier as stylistic reference points for his disturbingly handsome feature, which presents its bleakly crisp black-and-white images in a retro 4x3 frame.
Seamlessly blending exterior shots of Novocherkassk with grand sets constructed in Moscow, Konchalovsky creates an utterly convincing air of mounting chaos, brilliantly captured on multiple cameras marshalled by cinematographer Andrey Naydenov. Yet this is no Paul Greengrass-style exercise in frenetic docu-fiction, spurred on by a blur of handheld footage. On the contrary, Naydenov and Konchalovsky opt for an eerie stillness that bizarrely amplifies the film’s impact. Amid the increasingly confused cacophony of unfolding events, the comparative calm of the visuals strikes a horribly threatening chord.
Despite the true grit of its historical setting, it’s the personal story of Lyuda’s journey from stoical party hardliner to frantically aggrieved mother that draws the audience in. Vysotskaya is terrific in the central role, capturing both the dreams and disillusionment of a character who strives to repress, rather than express, her emotions, offering a staunch face to the world even when confronting an unimaginable reality. Whether she’s struggling to control her fear in a hospital or in the toilet fending off silent screams, Lyuda’s predicament is made all the more affecting by Vysotskaya’s ability to convey great turmoil with minimal action.
Throughout, Konchalovsky juxtaposes wide-ranging events with seemingly insignificant details to dramatic effect. In an early scene, a hole in Svetka’s sock proves no more than a scolding distraction; later it will return in gut-wrenching form, having assumed catastrophic significance. There’s a similar tension at play in the film’s pointed use of song, with patriotic tunes evoked to devastating effect during moments of desperation in a manner that reminded me of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. Here, the chilliness of the story is shot through with an unexpected warmth that ensures immediate emotional engagement with distant events.