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By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Alan Scherstuhl
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You can bet your last kopeck that newly elected Russian president Vladimir Putin hasn't so much as breathed Josef Stalin's name while prosecuting an expensive war in Chechnya and setting his old secret-police comrades loose in pursuit of the new Russia's capitalist bandits and money-launderers. In the former KGB agent's eyes, what his country needs most these days is some old-fashioned law and order. But it wouldn't do to remind the citizens of what that once entailed all the way from Moscow to Makarov.
The old tyrant Stalin must be grinning in hell. Putin's internal threats and external saber-rattling are not just a throwback to the Soviet era; they look very much like a new personality cult in the making. Our Vladimir says he's a free-market guy, but that messiah complex comes straight out of 1937.
What better time, then, for another clearheaded look at the Stalinist terror. Its ghastly extent will never be fully known -- the occupants of mass graves write no history -- but chroniclers like French filmmaker Regis Wargnier can certainly tell part of the story so that we may imagine the rest. Wargnier's East-West, one of this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Film, is unlikely to attract large audiences, but it deserves them. Using a vivid romantic melodrama as scaffolding and exploiting the talents of a subtle, gifted cast, the filmmaker reveals one of the cruelest (but least known) episodes of Stalin's brutality -- his cruelly tricked-up invitation to tens of thousands of displaced Soviet citizens to return to the motherland following World War II.
"Under Comrade Stalin, wise among the wise," the Soviet propaganda machine spouted, "we live as one large family." Well, not exactly. As it turned out, Uncle Joe's invite was akin to being asked to dinner at Al Capone's house, only to have the host show up swinging his baseball bat. When throngs of war-weary Russian idealists repatriated to the U.S.S.R. in 1946, they found not family feeling, but vicious totalitarian paranoia. Stalin executed thousands of the returnees soon after they stepped off the boats and sent thousands more to forced labor camps. For the folks they left behind, life quickly became a Kafkaesque blur of deprivation and denunciation. Welcome home, the regime was saying; we know damn well that you're spies for the West.
Against this violent background, Wargnier paints the harrowing twin portraits of Alexei Golovine (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian emigrant doctor who's been living in France, and his French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire). Fictional characters who represent the whole, they arrive in chilly Odessa exhausted but hopeful, and before they're even carted off to live in a squalid communal apartment in Kiev, they see one of their shipmates shot dead on the dock and half a dozen families separated. Reptilian Soviet cops promptly beat the pale, beautiful Marie and tear up her passport. For Alexei, they have other plans: He'll be useful as a medical functionary in a factory.
Shopping for nightmares? Grounded in history and inspired by sympathy, an international team of screenwriters -- Rustam Ibragimbekov, Serguei Bodrov, Louis Gardel and director Wargnier -- fashion a personal and political crucible in the style of Orwell, Koestler and Solzhenitsyn. While Alexei struggles to accommodate his Soviet keepers and hold his family together (the couple has a young son), Marie promptly rebels. "Every prison has a way out," she vows. But in the face of abductions by the secret police, denunciations for the sin of speaking French and rampant xenophobia, the Golovines' marriage cracks and their mutual promise to beat the odds falls into jeopardy. Alexei takes up with a stern party apparatchik named Olga (Tatiana Doguileva). Marie divides her attentions between her son (Ruben Tapiero), a lecherous Soviet colonel (Bogdan Stupka) and an orphaned seventeen-year-old swimmer, Sacha (Serguei Bodrov, Jr.), who thirsts for freedom as desperately as she does. Throughout, Wargnier and director of photography Laurent Dailland show us Stalinist Russia in its grim, gray lights, and they reveal some telling period detail: a starched military choir extolling collectivist virtue in three-part harmony; backstage intrigues as Sacha's crucial swimming career -- always against the tide -- takes twists and turns; a Russian Orthodox funeral conducted in secret.
Aside from being a student of Russian history, Wargnier is also one proud Frenchman, as anyone who saw his previous (and inferior) political melodrama, Indochine, can attest. So he makes the putative second heroine of East-West an imperious French actress named Gabrielle Devalay, played by the luminous Catherine Deneuve, who covertly tries to help the Golovines. In the gulf between Alexei's seeming conformity (he rises through the ranks to become a hospital director) and Marie's uncompromising dissent (she's branded an enemy of the people), Gabrielle is the ideal go-between -- for the film's purposes, at least. As in classical Russian literature, it may take years, even decades, for matters to be resolved. But the principals here have little else but their patience.
As a "popular" moviemaker with a serious political agenda, Wargnier may be without peer. Indochine, which won the 1994 Best Foreign Film Oscar, featured Deneuve in the tale of a wealthy French landowner coping with the imminent womanhood of her adopted Asian daughter; within it lay a potent (if muddled) political parable about maternalism and self-determination. With East-West, Wargnier's focus is sharper, his message clearer. This is by no means the first feature film to expose the Stalinist horror, or to praise survival instincts and resistance to evil. But it does both fluently and with a wealth of human feeling. If Comrade Putin fails to watch it with particular interest, he will be the poorer for it.
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