*Warning: This piece contains spoilers for Dear Comrades! The movie is not out yet everywhere, so proceed with caution.*
Director Andrei Konchalovsky, mostly known for writing the screenplays for Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, regains his cinematic power and directs his best film since 1985’s Runaway Train. His latest work of art, Dear Comrades! presents itself as a heart-wrenching drama exposing the horrors of post-Stalin-era Soviet communism, as it reenacts the Novocherkassk Massacre in 1962, through the eyes of Lyuda, a communist party worker (Julia Vysotskaya), who has strong views on Stalin and the party. Her daughter, Svetka (Yulia Burova), does not share the same views as her mother and participates in a demonstration in Novocherkassk without knowing that KGB officials were sent to shoot the protesters. When Svetka doesn’t return home, Lyuda’s views on the party and communism start to change once she realizes that the USSR is trying to cover up the massacre by swearing many employees to secrecy and pretending the event never happened.
Dear Comrades! is presented in black-and-white, with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Konchalovsky’s deliberate aspect ratio choices make him fixate his camera constantly through Lyuda’s perspective–everything the audience is seeing unfolds itself through Lyuda’s viewpoint. She doesn’t believe that what the party is doing is bad, blindly embedded in swallowing everything “the party line” tells her to do. That all changes when she is placed in the heat of the strike, looking for her daughter. One poignant moment, in particular, shifts her entire perspective. Lyuda, while looking for Svetka, helps a demonstrator who was shot in the leg to a building and tries to stop the bleeding, but a silenced bullet pierces the demonstrator’s throat and dies instantly, with blood slowly staining its glass window. From the inside of the building, Konchalovsky’s lens is patient and waits at the exact moment until Lyuda enters the building to unleash emotional catharsis, where Lyuda will be at her most vulnerable.
Vysotskaya gives a remarkable performance as Lyuda–every ounce of her performance magnifies the entire frame to produce incredible effect. Her facial expressions of anguish, terror, and despair rival some of the greatest expressive actors and actresses of our time because the weight she carries inside every single change in her state feels more powerful than any word she’ll say after what transpired. The audience gets a glimpse of what communist party/KGB officials are doing to hide the fact that the event has happened by burying bodies far beyond the city, signing nurses and workers contracts of secrecy, with the menace of execution, and executing any demonstrator that is found in the city. Worst of all: party officials have to turn a blind eye to anything that’s going on and pretend that everything is fine. At first, Lyuda claims for the execution of any demonstrator but quickly changes once her daughter is presumed dead. This gives Dear Comrades! a powerful sense of weight, with masterful character progression from the film’s tragic beginnings to its quasi-hopeful end.
The entirety of Dear Comrades! is filled with a dire sense of pessimism, and even if Lyuda learns that Svekta isn’t dead, after thinking that her body was buried and forgotten, it seems to fill her state with hope and a resounding sense of relief. We know, however, that the story won’t end well. Konchalovsky understands that the audience has grasped the film’s message, which is why he doesn’t show the film’s ending, which surely ends in pure tragedy for Svetka, but most notably for Lyuda who slowly came to terms with understanding how the KGB and the USSR do not care about its citizens and human beings, who were slaughtered in Novocherkassk, only because they want to cover-up a potential political scandal.
There are a few aspects of Dear Comrades! that should’ve been deepened or more fleshed-out, such as any scene involving the higher-ups of the KGB, discussing how to deal with the protests. These sequences showcase how truly corrupt and authoritarian the Russian government is, but they’re extremely brief and should’ve been developed further. Though, this is a minor complaint compared to what’s presented on-screen. Konchalovsky has, unfortunately, lost himself over the years, most notably his disastrous readaptation of The Nutcracker (in 3D) is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, appalling in every single way imaginable. With Sin, Konchalovsky returned to more simple and effective modes of filmmaking, but Dear Comrades! is the work of a true artist–who knows exactly what he wants out of his actors and visual artists to produce a highly powerful piece of film that only seems to come once in a while. Stop everything you’re doing and watch this movie immediately.