Dear Comrades review – Konchalovsky wrong-foots us with humour and horror

Lyuda Syomina is a proud Soviet who pines for the glory days of Stalin. “It all made sense back then,” she says. “Who is an enemy and who’s one of us.” Now it’s 1962 and the town of Novocherkassk is a mess. Food prices rising, stocks running low. There’s a scrum at the deli counter and grandpa wants his smokes. Lyuda works as an official on the city committee. She’s rowing with her teenage daughter and sleeping with her boss on the side. She thinks life is tough. It’s about to get worse.

By a happy chance, 1962 also marked director Andrei Konchalovsky’s first appearance at Venice, as a young co-writer on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. So the Russian film-maker is old enough to know his milieu back-to-front, inside-out, and brings a pungent first-hand verisimilitude to this gripping account of a workers’ strike and what came of it. One can almost smell the farts of Lyuda’s drunken dad, who sits at the kitchen table wearing his old soldier’s uniform.

Things go awry in Dear Comrades – slowly and then suddenly. The employees at the electrical power plant have ceased production, locked themselves inside, and Khrushchev is reportedly furious. There’s a slight whiff of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin to these early scenes as the drones on the committee start running about like headless chickens, each one terrified of being landed with the blame. Novocherkassk, they are told, is now being seen as “the centre of anti-Soviet, counter-revolutionary activity”, with protesters on the street and tanks blocking the bridge. In the massacre that follows, Lyuda shelters in a hair salon while bodies pile up outside the window.

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Konchalovsky describes Dear Comrades as a film about his parents’ generation: the good, obedient communists, let down by the state. That presumably makes Svetka, Lyuda’s rebellious daughter, his fictional alter ego. Except that Svetka is now missing, believed shot, which necessitates Lyuda recruiting a sympathetic KGB man (Vladislav Komarov) to ferret out her whereabouts. She insists that her plan is to turn Svetka over to the authorities – and her adherence to protocol is so total we actually believe that she might.

Lyuda is played throughout with a fierce, hardbitten intensity by Julia Vysotskaya, who never demands sympathy and never gives away anything more than she absolutely has to. This, one supposes, was how people avoided incarceration or worse: by keeping their heads down and their mouths tightly shut. “I don’t know anything,” Lyuda is told again and again, as she knocks on doors and asks questions. To not know anything in Novocherkassk is to know how to survive.

On his last two visits to the Venice competition, Konchalovsky came away with the festival’s Silver Lion award. He stands a decent chance of going one better this time. Dear Comrades is an engrossing, wrong-footing picture, gorgeously shot in fine-grained black-and-white, with a light, jaunty tone that undercuts the grim subject matter. It’s a film that understands that humour and horror are not always mutually exclusive and that even the worst moments in life carry an air of the absurd. People pull funny faces when they’re in shock or in pain, and the doctor needs a fag break while cataloguing bodies at the morgue.

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