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Flawed film on important theme, with dazzling child acting
on 12 July 2009
This film about the effect of Stalin's murderous purges on the old Bolshevik guard who brought him to power in and after the 1917 revolution falls into two segments. First, a long (almost two hours worth) description of the eccentric extended family of a semi-retired red army colonel and hero at play in summer at their dacha outside Moscow. They are joined by a young man whose sinister motives are eventually revealed. Other accounts of the film maintain that these are revealed gradually, but I was too dull to pick them up (eg the metaphor of the young man's diving into the river during a picnic, remaining under water for ages before unexpectedly resurfacing, only dawned on me afterwards). Certainly his bizarre arrival in fancy dress is both farcical and unsettling - elements of comedy dear to the heart of Russians.
For the 2nd segment the film abruptly changes gear and comes to a horrifying climax as 1930s political reality obliterates domestic idyll, and the symbolic imagery of the orb of the sun together with an associated hot-air balloon comes into play.
The problems with the film stem largely, I think, from the fact that the director/scriptwriter/lead actor/producer Nikita Mikhalkov, a Russian nationalist, not only occupies a powerful position in the Russian arts, but has political clout as a cheerleader for Vladimir Putin. This film is his from A to Z and it shows. He badly needed an independent producer and above all an editor who could have told him to reduce the first 2 self-indulgent hours by 40 minutes.
This sloth is in stark contrast to the crunch of the great scenes in the last 20 minutes as tragedy unfolds. An image of an enormous banner bearing the mugshot of Stalin being suddenly raised by means of a balloon over the horizon as the colonel's car jolts across the steppe road is unforgettable, as is the treatment doled out to the colonel and the fate of a passing delivery driver (a recurring figure in the film with metaphorical status) who witnesses it.
Despite the important and deadly theme of the film, the number one reason to watch is for the acting. The elfin Ingeborga Dapk'nait' plays subtly the wife of a larger-then-life colonel who yet has a life and a past of her own. But the masterstroke is the casting of Mikhalkov's real daughter, Nadia, as the colonel's daughter. This is acting of incredible concentration and delicacy. Tatum O'Neal was 10 when she filmed Paper Moon (1973) and Bobby Driscoll 12 in The Window (1949), both in a different age bracket from the 7 year old Nadia. Ana Torrent (also 7) was terrific in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), but Nadia Mikhalkov here has to be seen to be believed. I cannot believe her performance has its equal in any film by a child of her age group.
For this alone, and despite my earlier caveats, the film richly rewards a look.