Last week Martin Scorsese tried wriggling his way out of artistic responsibility, but this week Russia’s Andrei Konchalovsky teaches by example. Konchalovsky made both Dear Comrades and Sin before current global crises, but now, released as the first serious movies of the new year, each one pertains to the problems facing the American “content” culture — confusion, ambition, demoralization — that made Scorsese squirm.
Dear Comrades uncannily complements Biden-Harris-era panic by re-creating the massacre and clampdown of striking locomotive workers in Novocherkassk in 1962. In Sin, which anatomizes Michelangelo Buonarroti’s creative struggle during the Renaissance, we see the specter of political pressure on the artistic spirit.
Unlike Scorsese, Konchalovsky flouts the Netflixing of film culture; these are real movies, visually keen aesthetic expressions, not mere “content.” Old-school cineaste Konchalovsky, whose best film remains his 1972 version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, dramatizes characters and dilemmas that connect the present to our Western heritage. (If he cast Daniel Kaluuya as Alexander Pushkin, he’d be filmmaker of the month for Antifa and Black Lives Matter.)
Sin’s Michelangelo (Alberto Testone) carries the weight of personal, national, soulful obligations; Konchalovksy’s exalted visual style recalls Franco Zeffirelli’s classical imagery in the underrated film about Saint Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun and Sister Moon; so does the spiritual, homoerotic tension between the genius artist’s creative struggle and his practical career maneuvers — the best drama of its kind since Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato.
Dear Comrades concerns the hubris of political devotion, a subject so relevant that it’s almost a satirical mirror of our current betrayal by government and the media. That irony gives the film urgency. It’s not a “masterpiece,” but the reflection of political bewilderment (Sixties Russia compared to sycophantic Millennial America) makes Dear Comrades feel like a life lesson.
Take the titular term “comrades” (tovarish), the soubriquet implicit in today’s progressive takeover. No irony there. Konchalovsky dramatizes the 1962 massacre so that we pity the political errors of Russian hardliners still enthralled by Stalin and socialism. That’s the drama facing Lyuda Syomina (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a Party official pledged to write a speech about the riot, who slowly realizes that her fidelity to the socialist state — the then-new Khrushchev regime — is a path to misery.
The ironies of barbarism in Dear Comrades are alarming and recognizable. Heroine Lyuda is tired of food rations and threats of starvation; she longs for those good old days when Stalin was in charge. Torn between her KGB lover (Vladislav Komarov) and her radical daughter (Yuliya Burova), Lyuda dutifully quotes the 20th Party Congress, works with the Central Committee, and argues with her neighbors in standard belligerent argot. (Complaining becomes a social ritual.) She advocates “sensitivity training,” and when workers strike, she demands, “No use in talking. Arrest them all. Instigators should get extreme penalties.”
Here’s where Dear Comrades resembles cancel-culture America. Its political religiosity has an infra dig appeal for Biden-Harris enthusiasts as well as leftist reviewers who typically apply political sentimentality to Communist-bloc cinema. Now, under the pretext of COVID, all manner of fascism is deemed acceptable — even entertaining. Thus Dear Comrades has also won over some conservatives who have accustomed themselves to the new prevailing hatred and don’t seem to know any better.
It is bizarre to see reviewers twist Dear Comrades into nostalgia for political rectitude, as if longing for fascism. Although the U.S.A. produces its own kind of bumbling bureaucratic underhandedness, our media refuse to observe or analyze it. So this film becomes a valorized substitute. The key scene of the Novocherkassk riot immediately evokes the recent upheaval at the capital. It is Konchalovsky’s illustration of how socialist history works — rewritten by the victors — warning us that the truth of January 6 may never be told. Reviewers who call Dear Comrades a “masterpiece” do so simply because it aligns with their politics.
Lyuda, the confused apparatchik who goes along with the new regime’s suppression, is affectingly personified by Vysotskaya, who resembles a conscientious version of comedienne Chelsea Handler. (Her lover and co-workers call her a “madwoman.”) She nods with obedient reflex to a KGB assassin or smiles with crazed frustration when searching for her lost daughter. Lyuda sorrowfully understands both sides: pain and empathy. It’s a condition that the Soviet obsessives who want to erase Donald Trump haven’t reached.
But in Konchalovsky’s Sin, Michelangelo is never politically brainwashed. Instead, Scorsese’s old saw “sin” haunts Konchalovsky’s depiction of man’s effort to simultaneously fulfill himself and please God. Michelangelo’s rough-and-tumble with his patrons — the pope and the warring Della Rovere and Medici families — are contrasted with exquisite dissolves of the long-lasting sculptures. The artist in his time, questioning the meaning of beauty, is beyond Scorsese’s ken. Sin may equal Andrei Tarkovsky’s Alexander Rublev (1966), which Konchalovsky co-wrote, yet its best scenes — such as Michelangelo’s fixation on an enormous “monster” of white Carrara marble — grapple with the follies of Russian and Western sensibility while attempting to rationalize it.
In Sin, Michelangelo pursues his holy challenge. In Dear Comrades, Lyuda grieves, “What am I supposed to believe in if not Communism? I wish Stalin would come back. We can’t do it without him. We can’t make it.” Konchalovsky’s dilemmas transcend Scorsese’s political reticence by going back to the classics. Lyuda’s final cry, “We shall better ourselves,” echoes the grace note that ends Chekov’s Uncle Vanya: “We shall work for others without rest . . . and when our last hour comes, we shall meet it humbly . . . and God will have pity on us. We will rest.”
Of Konchalovsky’s two lessons, Sin is the better film, profoundly observing an artist’s spiritual agony, while the sentimental Dear Comrades suits current lockdown anxiety all too well.