In 1962, the Soviet Union violently suppressed a strike in the southern Russian city of Novocherkassk, shooting directly into protestors. Details did not come out to the public until the 1990s. In his latest drama, Andrei Konchalovskiy places the viewer at the centre of these restless few days, following local communist party operative Lyuda (Julia Vysotskaya) as she unwittingly ignites a chain of events that will leave dozens dead and hundreds more under trial for sedition.
Vysotskaya’s steely gaze and understated performance makes Lyuda a difficult, yet sympathetic actor in the events. Lyuda is more concerned with survival than doing the right thing, and she is quick to lose her temper with her family and her party colleagues. Her lack of division between the domestic sphere and her public office demonstrates the equal place both hold in her life; “the Party” is a source of comfort and meaning that her daughter and lover sometimes lack, and discovering that those connections are more tenuous than initially thought leads to quiet, desperate rage.
Andrei Naidenov’s black and white photography and Polina Volynkina’s muted sound design are especially effective in moments of violence, when blood and asphalt are almost indistinguishable. The violence leaves much unseen – even the film’s brutalities are quiet, undramatic affairs seen far too close for comfort – and the dialogue captures the cover-up attempts with far more detail than the carnage.
Konchalovskiy’s direction and his script with Elena Kiseleva deftly portrays how indirect and secretive many of these conversations had to be in the aftermath of the massacre. Coffees, newspapers, and any corner just out of earshot are employed to relay key information that Lyuda can use to plan her way to safety, in a time when everyone is a suspect. This conveys the absurdity of and fundamental impossibility of life in a state that mistrusts everyone.
By the film’s conclusion, the repetition of pledges and party songs have taken on a cold, angry edge under the remaining characters’ manic coping. DEAR COMRADES! argues that all are culpable. Politics and personal loyalties collide with no accountability, making it an essential companion to a history that may never fully be known. Its conclusion offers only hollow, superficial closure.