After a week of four films a day, unhealthy amounts of coffee, and dangerously little sleep, the countless screenings you’ve been shuttled into tend to merge into one confused amalgam. You’ve watched enough films for creative pairings between the selection to start percolating, and a great double bill came about yesterday, as the Lido welcomed back Andrei Konchalovsky and his latest, Dear Comrades! I watched it as a storm raged over the Lido, the thunders roaring above the roof of the Sala Darsena, a fitting soundtrack for a film that unearthed a tragic chapter of Soviet history, and brought me back to another Golden Lion contender from a few days ago, Quo Vadis, Aida? Both Konchalovsky and Jasmila Žbanić’s films home in on unspeakable massacres, and follow women struggling to protect their families against the forces of History. Incidentally, both are also among the very best the festival has unveiled so far.
Konchalovsky has become something of a Lido regular: Dear Comrades! is the third feature of his to find a slot in the official competition in the last six years. I remember watching The Postman’s White Nights in a crowded Pala Biennale in 2014, and his black-and-white Holocaust drama Paradise just two years later. Both films earned the Russian a Silver Lion for Best Directing, and his latest heralds, in themes and aesthetics, a return to his 2016 prizewinner. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Andrey Naidenov, it’s chronicle of a real-life tragedy that shook the southern USSR town of Novocherkassk on June 2, 1962, when a strike led by workers of a local factory ended in tragedy, and the Soviet armed forces sent to quell the protest massacred 26 unarmed civilians (though the number, as per Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, might have been as high as 80). Ushering us into the atrocity is Lyudmila (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a devout Communist Party official and World War II veteran, whose unshakable faith in the Party is put to the test once her daughter disappears during the revolt, and Soviet authorities intensify efforts to cover up the murders.
It’s a faithful and impeccably shot exhumation of those fateful few days. Exterior scenes were filmed in Novocherkassk, and the backing of general producer Alisher Usmanov meant Konchalovsky could rely on a large enough budget to design a 1:1 scale replica of the town’s Party headquarters, largely rebuilt through the decades. Naidenov’s monochrome dons the film an elemental grace, and even as the camera seldom moves during Lyudmila’s odyssey, scenes radiate a palpable sense of danger and electricity. But to read Dear Comrades! as a relic from the past is to miss the ways in which the film captures the massacre in the present tense, squaring the events in Novocherkassk within an uninterrupted history of state violence. “There is no god in the Don region,” we are warned; as the battle in the city rages on amid curfews and executions, Lyudmila’s old father reminds her the atrocities are nothing new, and the local Cossack community suffered all sorts of horrors under Stalin as well (the man whom Lyudmila still reveres as a messiah and beacon of past Soviet glory). So it is no surprise that when the Party high cadres gather in Novocherkassk, the discourse around the unrest should reek of the same old bilious core-vs-periphery propaganda (“half this city has spent time in prison… they’re all hooligans”). It’s a history of continuities, which imbues Dear Comrades! with rebellious fury and present-day urgency.
Lyudmila’s is the story of an awakening. She has clung on to the Party as a raison d’être, and yet the script, penned by Konchalovsky and regular co-scribe Elena Kiseleva, never ridicules her fanaticism, and Vysotskaya instills genuine compassion into the plight of a woman who watches as the world she’s been taught to worship crumbles before her eyes. Still, her character arc doesn’t end with an unequivocal rejection of those ideals. Even as Lyudmila finally wakes up to the full scale of the state repression, and her faith in the Party starts to waver, her belief in the country’s old splendor and in its chances of redemption do not. “I wish Stalin could come back,” she mutters toward the end, disheveled, and drunk, an empty chrysalis of the woman who powered through the film’s preamble. Moments later, she utters another prayer: “we shall be better.” It’s an unexpected injection of optimism and humanity into a film orphaned of both: a plea to move forward, but to never forget.
As a tale of injustice, Dear Comrades! jolted me back to another official competition title I’d seen just the night before, Majid Majidi’s Sun Children, a film dedicated to the 152 million child laborers around the world, and zeroing in on a smattering of them in the streets of Teheran. It’s a posse led by Ali (Rouhollah Zamani), a 12-year-old with no father, no siblings, and a bed-ridden mother to look after. We meet him in the parking lot of a shopping mall as he tries to steal tires with his mates, and follow him through what unfurls as a picaresque and heart-wrenching treasure hunt. Brought before an old man he got into trouble with, Ali isn’t punished, but entrusted with retrieving a treasure the elder is after. But here’s the catch: the riches (whatever those may be, Ali isn’t told) have been hidden underground, and the exact spot can only be reached through a tiny tunnel that leads to the Sun School, a charitable institution devoted to the education of street kids. The man wants to proceed “step by step,” meaning Ali and his pals are to enroll at the school, and dig their way to the mysterious fortune in between classes.
Majidi isn’t new to kids’ tales: in 1998, his Children of Heaven became the first Iranian film to receive an Oscar nod in what was then called the Best Foreign Picture category. As he’s articulated it, the continued interest in children’s stories owes the authenticity, energy and vitality kids can pour into the frame. But it takes a great deal of talent to be able to adjust one’s perspective to their worldview, and a phenomenal young cast to bring that vision to life. Sun Children has both. Visually, the film embraces what feels like a children’s grammar: Hooman Behmanesh’s camera lingers at their eye level, favoring handheld movements over static compositions. We watch and run into the world with them, dashing across shopping malls and metro stations, rooftops and alleyways. And while the script—penned by Majidi and co-scribe Nima Javidi—doesn’t leave much room for twists or surprises, and the lacerating finale Sun Children hurls towards isn’t all too difficult to predict, tension is omnipresent through the journey, and scenes crackle with an infectious mix of fear and curiosity. Rare are the moments when kids can still be kids, but in those discontinuous instants, Sun Children radiates with warm energy and wide-eyed candor - and the mysterious treasure they boys are after, and whose real shape none of them knows, can still be thought of as a bag of gold coins.
None of this is to suggest the world Majidi captures is some sort of fairy tale. Sun Children remains anchored on what unspools as a war of all-against-all. That kids aren’t born equal is the film’s premise, but even among the pariahs there are hierarchies, and the script is perceptively attuned to the different levels of injustice each can expect if caught red-handed. Ali’s gang includes an Afghan refugee; unlike the other Iranian kids, getting into trouble, for him, would result in a one-way ticket to the nearest camp. Early into the treasure hunt, the Afghan boy’s little sister warns Ali to keep the boy away from danger. It’s the film’s most poignant scene, and a testament to the stupefying vividness Majidi’s young cast pour into it. Auditions spanned four months and 3000 candidates, and Majidi ended up recruiting an all first timers’ cast. That the tragedy Sun Children captures feels so alive and heart wrenching is credit to their performances, and one of them in particular: Zamani’s riveting lead turn. He’s the film beating heart, and staggers through it with spirited eyes, a bundle of energy shot through with desperation and wonder. Rare are the films in which an actor this young can craft a performance this towering.
Dear Comrades! and Sun Children were among the strongest entries in the official competition this year. But after a whole week of screenings behind me, I was yet to sit through one that would leave me in the state of befuddlement and confusion I normally associate with the festival’s most intriguing entries. I believe I speak for many here on the Lido when I say that people do not come to the Venice Film Festival simply for a nice time (much as the Adriatic scintillating warm and languid could trick you into thinking that), but for the hope that some film, at some point, could turn into a one-of-a-kind experience. I finally came close to something of the like the other day, watching Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert’s Never Gonna Snow Again, the first title this year that made scribble on my notebook: I have absolutely no idea what this is all about. And yet, maddening and confounding as the journey may have been, it entranced me from the off.
The plot: Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), is a Ukrainian-born masseur offering his services to the denizens of a walled-off compound in the outskirts of an Eastern European city. Picture a stretch of posh suburbia, a village-maze of pretty much identical three-story villas painted white and populated by affluent families and spoiled children. Demand for Zhenia’s services is high, and the man soon becomes a familiar presence in the area; he hops from one house to the other, a massage bed folded and slung across his shoulders, welcomed as this savior-like figure by the men and women he visits. And a savior of some mysterious sorts he may well be. Co-writers Szumowska and Englert tell us Zhenia was born in Chernobyl, and even as the man may not be radioactive (a running joke among the clients), there’s something perturbing about him, and a mysteriously hypnotic quality to the massages. Let Zhenia touch you, and lull you into a meditative trance with the power of his hands and soothing voice, and you’ll suddenly wake up in a forest, some snowflakes-like particles billowing gently with the breeze.
Just where and what exactly those woods may be I do not know, but the Stalker references Szumowska and Englert disseminate throughout made me think I was venturing into a Zone-esque region, a neverland where Zhenia’s patients could reconnect with their subconscious and childhood memories. I’m still not sure whether this is the right key to decipher into the film. The title hints at an environmental catastrophe, and there are moments when Szumowska and Englert connect the acute melancholia afflicting Zhenia’s clients with the disappearance of seasons (shot by Englert, Never Gonna Snow Again hangs in this undefinable temporal limbo, an early winter—perhaps?—with aluminum skies and calligraphic trees). But that’s what makes the film so perturbing and alluring: a protean shape that renders futile all efforts to pigeonhole it into this or that narrative. Never Gonna Snow Again is all texture and atmosphere, plot-thin but not uneventful (Zhenia’s transformation from masseur into ballet dancer, for one, was among the most unexpected scenes I saw this year). It’s the sort of film that invites countless readings, and eludes all facile interpretations: just the kind of festival experience I needed, and missed.