Russian film “Dear Comrades!”, which was submitted as the Russian entry for Best International Film Oscar in last year (It subsequently made to the shortlist, by the way), looks into one relatively unknown historical incident via the personal viewpoint of a woman who absolutely believed in her communist system before opening her eyes to its absurdity and ruthlessness. While it initially amuses us a lot with several absurd moments of communist bureaucracy during its first half, the movie eventually strikes us hard with its calm but devastating presentation of that historical incident, and we become more emotionally involved in its heroine’s following desperate struggle during the second half.
At first, the movie, which is set in Novocherkassk, June 1962, shows us how things are mostly ‘ordinary’ for Lyudmila ‘Lyuda’ Syomina (Julia Vysotskaya) and many others in the city. Many of citizens have been struggling a lot as usual due to the frequent deficiency of commodities and groceries everyday, but Lyuda is not particularly concerned as believing that everything will eventually be all right under the control of their communist party, and she also does not mind getting a bit more than others behind her back. After all, she is a party worker of the local city committee, and she has also been in a close relationship with the head of the committee even though he is a married man.
Anyway, it soon turns out that there has been considerable unrest in one of the important factories in the city due to the significant cut in the wages of its numerous workers. Some of Lyuda’s fellow committee members show some reasonable concern, but they all do not worry that much while mostly occupied with presenting their report well to those high-ranking apparatchiks above them, and Lyuda willingly goes along with that.
However, we gradually come to sense that something is bound to happen sooner or later. When Lyuda’s daughter talks about the increasing unrest among those factory workers and her strong support toward them, Lyuda is not pleased at all as a hardcore communist who often misses those good old days of the Stalin regime, and their eventual domestic conflict is silently watched by Lyuda’s old father, whose sardonic silence speaks volumes on how much he experienced and suffered in the past.
On the very next day, Lyuda and her colleagues begin their another day as usual, but then a strike is suddenly started in that factory, and then they find themselves stuck inside their building once a bunch of strikers and demonstrators arrive in front of the building. Belatedly coming to realize how serious the situation really is, Lyuda and her colleagues hurriedly hide somewhere inside the building, and that is later followed by an absurd scene where they manage to escape from the building without getting noticed.
Once the news of the strike reaches to the central government in Moscow, everyone around Lyuda becomes more pressured to get things under control as soon as possible. At the emergency meeting held among officials and military officers, they all come to agree that the strike must be quickly suppressed by any means necessary, and Lyuda does not hesitate to express her radical opinion loud and clear to others around her.
When the demonstration is started again, a bunch of soldiers are ready to shoot those demonstrators, and several undercover KGB agents are already sent into the demonstration for checking out any instigator to be arrested later. At one point, something goes quite wrong, and what follows right after that point is simply devastating to say the least. Although the camera of cinematographer Andrey Naydenov, who did a commendable job of filling the film with enough authentic period mood on the black and white film of 1.33:1 ratio, calmly sticks to its usual static position, what is shown during this sequence is often quite striking, and we come to sense how much Lyuda’s mind is shaken up as she happens to witness the brutal suppression of the demonstration by those soldiers.
During the aftermath, Lyuda finds herself in a tricky position just like many others around her. As the city is completely shielded from the world outside, she and many citizens are demanded to sign a document demanding their complete silence on whatever happened on that terrible day, and she also finds herself pushed toward covering up everything along with her colleagues, but there is one big problem. Her daughter happened to be gone missing on that day, and Lyuda desperately tries to locate where her daughter is, but it is increasingly possible that her daughter was swept aside along with many other victims on that day.
Although the finale feels rather artificial in my inconsequential opinion, it still works well on the whole thanks to the skillful direction of director/co-producer/co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky, who has been mainly known for several notable works including “Runaway Train” (1985). As the main human center of the film, Julia Vysotskaya ably conveys to us her character’s gradual development along the story, and she is also supported well by several other main cast members including Sergei Erlish, Yuliya Burova, Vladislav Komarov, and Andrei Gusev, who is also very good as a jaded KGB agent who turns out to be much more decent than he seemed at first.
Overall, “Dear Comrades!”, which garnered the Special Jury Prize when it was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, is a vivid and engaging period drama, and I enjoyed its specific mood and details while following its story and characters with more care and attention. As a dry arthouse flick, it will require some patience from the beginning, but it is a rewarding experience nonetheless, and you may become more interested in getting to know more of its historical subject.