State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

 

In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.

When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.

So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.

Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.

Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.

We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.

It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.

REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
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Again Once Again (De nuevo otra vez)


Hugs communicate so much.

(2019) Drama (MUBIRomina Paula, Monica Rank, Ramón Cohen, Mariana Chaud, Pablo Sigal, Denise Groesman, Esteban Bigliardi. Directed by Romina Paula and Rosario Cervio

 

Motherhood is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Most women aspire to it, and most women who become mothers will tell you that as difficult as it is, it is something they wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. But that difficult part…it can be overwhelming, especially for first-time mothers. Every mom wants to be the perfect mom, but there really is no such thing – but that doesn’t mean the attempt isn’t made. Women submerge their own needs into the needs of their child and their families until it’s hard to tell if they even exist as an individual anymore. Sometimes, it feels to them like they don’t.

Romina (Paula) who lives in Cordoba, Argentina with her boyfriend and son, has taken her son (Cohen) to Buenos Aires to visit her mother (Rank) – but she’s not sure if this is just a visit, or a signal that her relationship with her boyfriend (Bigliardi) is over. Although her son is three, she feels like she has disappeared – “I can’t see myself,” she admits to her mother.

Her mother, who raised her speaking German as her mom’s family had emigrated from Germany in the early 20th century and spoke it in the home, is only too happy to have her grandson and her daughter back. “Stay as long as you need,” she urges and Romina takes her up on it. Her mom urges her to go out, take some time for herself – and she does, going to parties with her friends Mariana (Chaud) and Denise (Groesman). She dances, flirts, and has deep discussions about her feelings. Her mother from time to time criticizes Romina in that passive-aggressive way mothers do with their daughters, but Romina feels adrift, trying to find herself, wondering if it is even possible.

This is one of those rare films that has to do with a woman’s mid-life crisis. It looks at the feelings with no little bit of intellectual discussion This is a largely autobiographical film – Paula plays a fairly thinly veiled version of herself, and one gets the sense that she’s using this film somewhat as therapy. It’s not easy to resent the effect a child has on your life, as much as she clearly loves her son. When her mother gently prods her daughter that her son needs to socialize with other children as well as her socializing with her friends, you get the sense that this is a discussion the two women have had in real life.

The performances here are pretty solid, from a largely non-professional cast (Paula herself is the exception). The situations are mainly mundane and there isn’t a whole lot of action, although there is  lot of talking and inner monologues are displayed in clunky fashion against slide shows as Romina narrates her family history and talks about her relationships. We could have done without those.

For a first-time film director, Paula does a pretty good job, and delivers a rarity – a great ending. It symbolizes her change from a woman who is following in the shadow of her man, to a woman embarking on a new and unknown journey on her own. As she turns to walk away from the camera, she flashes an enigmatic little smile. It’s just perfect.

There isn’t a lot of catharsis here, and as far as insights go, the film requires you to work for them a little bit, which is something American audiences aren’t always willing to do. However, this is a very strong debut and a very interesting movie that held my attention for its entire length, not an easy thing to do these days. I highly recommend it, and MUBI subscribers, who already tend to be fairly adventurous in their film choices, are going to love it.

REASONS TO SEE: Very thoughtful very smart. A wonderful final scene.
REASONS TO AVOID: Romina’s uncertainty can be maddening.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references as well as some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romina’s mother and son are played by her real-life mother and son.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75/100, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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