At the best of times, the relationship between a government and its people is a strained one. Everyone holds a belief as to how things should be done. And in times of great stress, it's easy to form feelings of contempt towards those who ultimately make the decisions. Trust isn't a given when it comes to our elected officials. On many occasions, history has shown leaders' capacity to protect the institution can far outweigh the protection of the people within it. And in 'Dear Comrades!', which is currently available on MIFF Play, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky frames this via one of Russia's greatest tragedies: when the government slaughtered those who opposed them.
It is 1962, and Russia's communist government has raised food prices. The government has told its workers that it's no more than a temporary hardship, but the people are angry. The small industrial town of Novocherkassk have gone on strike, and plan to protest outside the office of the local city committee. However, the government commission refuses to accept the disobedience on display. The army is authorised to shoot to kill those deemed agitators. And as the carnage unfolds, a once devout party activist, Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya), has to search for her daughter, a potential victim of this horrific massacre.
'Dear Comrades!' is a startling condemnation of a truly horrific event. Konchalovsky's fury radiates from the moment the government devises its plan through to the subsequent cover-up efforts after many were slain. He is able to orchestrate the pure helplessness of Novocherkassk's situation. No character ever feels in control, but rather trapped by the film's tense atmosphere. As many refuse to acknowledge the blood on the concrete or the corpses that lie in front of them, it is a searing viewing experience. The film never struggles for potency when depicting the massacre.
Konchalovsky's approach is meticulous, and the power of the story owes a lot to his presentational choices. Shot in monochrome with a 1:33 aspect ratio, 'Dear Comrades!' feels true to its period setting, but it also pens us in. The film pervades a constant fear of being caught out. With armed forces on every corner, one perceived act of rebellion can spell disaster, and the film never allows you to lower your guard amidst the oppressive circumstances. By keeping the colours drained and the shots tight, the film's sterling production does its part in draining us of any conceivable hope.
Yet, despite the brutality shown, the film always remains thoughtful. It never resorts to sensationalism to convey its point, and this largely stems from the decision to view the film through the eyes of a staunch activist. We meet Lyudmila as an ardent defender of the USSR. She denounces the concerns of those she encounters. She even resorts to violence when her daughter questions those in power. But once her daughter is missing amongst the bloodshed, Lyudmila has to reassess her worldview. The push from officials to forget what happened sees her outlook unravel, and it's endlessly compelling. Vysotskaya slowly peels away the character's rough exterior to pure disillusionment. She's torn between motherhood and the motherland, and the choice to view the film through this prism is an inspired one.
'Dear Comrades!' is a startling condemnation of a truly horrific event. Konchalovsky's fury radiates from the moment the government devises its plan to the subsequent cover-up efforts after many were slain.
This expands the film beyond just a reconstruction of tragedy. The slow dismantling of Lyudmila's indoctrination is remarkably told, and a sharp insight on the mark that level of allegiance leaves on a person. When she demands to know how this was allowed to happen, you see her entire world shatter. It's the type of raw moment that sits with you long after the scene concludes. 'Dear Comrades!' is a deft meditation on when you're forced to question both beliefs and tragedy and how helpless that can make one feel. To question either is a universal notion, and the way the film examines Lyudmila's growing realisation is as sobering as cinema gets.
That said, the film does stumble in its pacing. Konchalovsky takes his time in allowing Lyudmila to grapple with the gravity of her situation. However, that doesn't always work to the film's benefit. Some sequences are drawn out far longer than they need to be. And the deliberately slow pacing can harm the film's level of tension. You can understand why this choice was made, as the film aims to illuminate its horrors delicately, although the slow-burn nature at hand can sometimes find the film losing its immediacy as a result.
Nevertheless, 'Dear Comrades!' is an effective and often unforgiving look at a sickening moment in human history. It's a film I find myself thinking about days after initially viewing it. There is a rich tapestry of themes in play. The film ponders what it means to serve, what it means to believe, and what an ugly truth can do to something we once held so dear. The film takes place almost 60 years ago, but its messages remain timely. In the final days of MIFF, it's very much worth the ticket.