Veteran filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (writer of the iconic Andrei Rublev and a renowned director now in his seventh decade as a filmmaker) brings a devastating reflection on loss and rage with the awards contender Dear Comrades.  The film is a re-enactment of the hushed-up Novocherkassk massacre in western Russia in 1962, when Soviet military forces opened fire on protestors, killing roughly 80 people.

Shot in black and white, the striking and cold cinematography really excels in bringing a grim and sullen feeling to the film, showcasing the discontent of the local population and the incompetence of local government. It is reminiscent of Cold War in this regard, but there are obviously clear differences in subject matter.

The film could quite easily have been an ensemble piece and while we do have scenes showing the sparring between the military and bureaucrats, the film’s core is the performance of Yuliya Vysotskaya as Lyuda, a frequent collaborator of Konchalovsky. She is absolutely terrific at selling first Lyuda’s uncompromising commitment to the Communist party and her local faction, putting her at odds with her rebellious daughter.

This is an incredibly layered performance and it is all the more devastating as a result, with Lyuda’s resolve and more insular nature compromised when it appears her daughter Svetka may have been caught up in the atrocities.  The desperation and heartbreak that ensues is an absolute marvel to behold, as Lyuda stumbles upon the scale of the initial cover up and risks getting herself in deep water.

Yuliya Burova as Svetka is a fine foil, full of fire and energy on the side of the rebellion and at odds with her family’s world view and that of the upper echelons. The dynamic between the pair does a fine job at selling the generational divide in Soviet Russia and the discontent of its youth, while its elders strive for calm.  This is offset by Lyuda’s father who harkens back to the good old Stalin days, discontented by the Kruschev years and showing the differing world views of three generations under the same roof.

The sequences showing the main events are shocking to watch, but the violence is not gratuitous and the attention to detail is staggering. These moments feel alive and are truly terrifying.  The film builds to this point with a sense of impending dread and desperation. The clashes between those in charge and the military go some distance to showing the army’s unease with firing on its own and the pressure rained down upon them to do so.

The use of patriotism is well handled, depicting many of the bureau’s blind loyalty to the Khrushchev regime with a lack of remorse for the actions that occur. We constantly revisit the same patriotic song from Grigory Alekandrov’s Spring with a chorus of “Oh Comrades, protect your motherland at all costs” Lyuda and others keep singing this to show their unyielding loyalty to the state even as their resolve is pushed to the absolute limit. Patriotism is used almost as a way of escaping the terrible events unfolding, with many blinded by their sheer devotion to those above.

The painstaking accuracy of the depiction of events brings a heightened sense of realism. The film blends exterior shots of Novocherkassk with sets built in Moscow.  The extent of the film’s authenticity makes the events depicted all the more brutal and terrifying, a particularly shocking moment is the announcement of a public dance, barely hours after dozens have been brutally murdered.

Dear Comrades acts as a stark reminder of one of the darkest points in Russian history, shining a light on an event that should perhaps be more widely discussed. It is anchored by a tour-de-force performance from Yuliya Vysotskaya, with some fine cinematography and attention to period detail.  It is well worth seeking out, as a tense and thought provoking take on a true atrocity. The film does a commendable job at showing the differing generations’ views on protest and Communism as well as the chasm between the military and local government.

Rating: ★★★★

Dear Comrades is available On Demand and on Hulu from 5 February 2021.