April 21st 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The deeper causes of Australia's social malaise

GENDER POLITICS Queensland proposes transgender birth certificates

CANBERRA OBSERVED Malcolm at 30 (polls): the cloud on Turnbull's horizon

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell firmly denies sex abuse allegations

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Sydney Archdiocese aims to eliminate slavery in supply chain

RURAL DEVELOPMENT Irrigation along Fitzroy River proposed and opposed

LIFE ISSUES Abortion Rethink Summit: the case for care

VERBATIM WA food, drink producers face shortage of carbon dioxide

HOUSING AFFORDABILITY Land costs: economist Henry George's solution

ELECTRICITY Will Turnbull lose three out of three?

ECONOMICS Trade wars: tariffs unlikely to be fired in anger

SEX AND TEENS How about support for the abstaining majority?

VISUAL ARTS Layers of meaning in Botticelli's La Primavera and The Birth of Venus

MUSIC Is it good?: Or, do we just like the sound it makes?

CINEMA The Death of Stalin: Black comedy of a dark time

BOOK REVIEW Cool head on topic that generates heat

BOOK REVIEW Life's not so bad: from the outside

POETRY

LETTERS

OPINION What a republic would really mean for Australia

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CINEMA
The Death of Stalin: Black comedy of a dark time


by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, April 21, 2018

The Death of Stalin is a pitch-black, foul-mouthed satirical take on the death of the Soviet strongman and its aftermath.

Loosely based on the historical record and the French graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the film reimagines the events as a blend of brutality and bureaucratic bickering, with a spot of incompetence thrown in for good measure. While undoubtedly comic, and undeniably dark, it is debatable whether the film really captures the true absurdity of Stalin’s Russia and the ways in which he and the communist party were able to remain in power – although it’s just as debatable if this was the aim of its makers.

The movie opens with a live broadcast of a Mozart recital from Radio Moscow. Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) receives a call requesting a call-back from the General Secretary, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) himself. When he calls back, Stalin wants a recording of the performance – a recording that does not exist, leading the terrified Andreyev to re-stage the recital, dragging in anyone from the street to make up the audience since half of the original one has already left, and finding a conductor after the first has collapsed in terror.

Meanwhile, at Stalin’s dacha, the tyrant’s having a boozy dinner with some of his mates – his deputy, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor); security chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale); foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and party head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) – followed by cowboy movies. The men head home after the movies, with Beria popping off for some late night work at Lubyanka, following up on the latest list of enemies.

Stalin receives the recording, along with a note from the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), praying for his death, which causes him to laugh so hard he has a cerebral haemorrhage and collapses on the floor. The guards hear a thud, but decide against acting, leaving the serving lady to find his body in the morning. This leads to a mad dash from the various officials to get out there and decide what to do, with the first point of debate being whether they should call a doctor – especially as all the good doctors have been exiled or executed for a plot to kill Stalin.

Into the mix comes Stalin’s practical and efficient, and seemingly unaware, daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), who is popular with the people and therefore important to have on side; and his drunken and semi-stable son Vasily (Rupert Friend), who has managed to lose the entire Russian hockey team in a plan crash.

A power play begins as both Beria and Khrushchev vie to be the great reformers and liberalisers, which becomes even more heated with the arrival of Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the plain-speaking hero of the Great Patriotic War, who loathes Beria.

Throughout all this, there are summary executions, tortures, a few rapes and long committee meetings to discuss what should be done.

The Death of Stalin is the latest exercise in gallows humour from writer-director Amando Iannucci, the creator of political comedies The Thick of It and Veep. It is not a history lesson, with various changes made for the sake of the story he’s trying to tell. Iannucci seeks to emphasise the absurdity of the situation without detracting from its awfulness.

The Death of Stalin alternates between highfalutin’ rhetoric and grand gestures, and utter vulgarity in an attempt both to normalise and diminish its targets.

Iannucci’s approach works, but the audience may be forgiven for wondering how on earth these people ended up running a nuclear superpower that was instrumental in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. The main answer given seems to be fear, although there are hints of the True Believers, as seen in Molotov, a man whose main problem with Beria is that he’s undermining Stalin’s legacy.

While it is true that Iannucci is not trying to explain the USSR, or the nature of dictatorship or communism, this does seem like a wasted opportunity for an even darker, sharper satire along the lines of Terry Gilliam’s insane and brilliant Brazil, where dictatorship is seen mainly as an extension of bureaucracy and that bureaucracy, with all its intricacies and incompetences, is the real problem.

The Death of Stalin is amusing, if not deep, if one has the stomach for it.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).




























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