In 1962, a group of striking factory workers was massacred in the industrial Russian town of Novocherkassk. The shocking event, and the ensuing cover-up, is explored in intimate and meticulous detail by veteran filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky in Dear Comrades!, this year’s submission from Russia to the International Feature Oscar race.
With DoP Andrey Naidenov, Konchalovsky uses his trademark multi-camera shooting method and opts for a bleak look: black and white, with a 1:33 aspect ratio that suits the 60s period. The story centers on Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a Communist party official who’s having a joyless affair with a married colleague and living with her teenage daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) and elderly father (Sergei Erlish). A dutiful employee, Lyuda speaks up in crisis meetings with the authorities, suggesting harsh penalties for the rebellious workers, who are complaining about lower pay and a rise in food prices. She may live to regret her words when her daughter joins the protest, and shots are fired.
Narratively, Dear Comrades! is a relatively slow starter, beginning with the dry satirical humor of bureaucracy and evolving into an intense political drama. It’s set over the course of a few days, and follows Lyuda closely, pulling back to show the fatal protest on a wider stage. Each extra is carefully cast and choreographed, and the action is shown largely through a shop window, almost as if the viewer is cowering in the corner of the establishment inside. A member of staff lies lifeless on the ground, only their legs visible. Lyuda helps bring in an injured woman and props her up by the window. Shots pierce the window, blood spurts and splatters — it may not be red, but it hits you hard. The monochrome photography mirrors the cool cruelty of officials, who order witnesses to sign non-disclosure agreements while the streets are still bathed in blood.
Searching for her missing daughter, Lyuda is aided in her quest for the truth by local KGB agent Viktor (Andrei Gusev). His willingness to help at great risk seems a little convenient — does he have romantic intentions, is he merely being kind, or is there a conspiracy here? Dear Comrades! acknowledges how elusive the truth can be in a culture of silence and fear. “If [that] Sholokhov of yours had written the truth, nobody would have known he ever existed,” says Lyuda’s father of her favored novelist.
This conversation between father and daughter takes place over a bottle of liqueur, saved for special occasions, now used as an emergency drink. Throughout Dear Comrades!, alcohol plays a part in coloring the characters and their responses to an escalating situation. When Lyuda accuses the protesting workers of being drunk, her daughter shrugs it off, asking her to focus on the issue at hand. It’s not long before Lyuda turns to alcohol out of stress herself, first with the party members, and later in a car with Viktor. It’s here that Lyuda finally opens up emotionally and questions the establishment, still torn in her loyalties but desperate to find her missing daughter.
Whether theater actors or street cast newcomers, the cast of Dear Comrades! all deliver. But it’s Konchalovsky regular Vysotskaya who stays with you, as a complex heroine whose utopian Soviet dream is gradually unravelling. It’s a remarkable performance at the center of a devastating film.
International Critics Line
March 17, 2022
March 7, 2022
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.