As he proved with the 2009 political satire, In the Loop, director Armando Iannucci is not afraid to delve deep into the curdled souls of ambitious men and women for comedy that smarts more than it entertains. He is the reason a wholly offensive TV show like Veep works as well as it does, and his reimagination of the inner-Kremlin machinations following the sudden death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 is funny for the same wincing reasons, but it offers something even more subversive: History you can use and laugh at at the same time.
Reportedly, Iannucci faithfully follows the historical record of those fateful days, when Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) emerged the new leader of the Soviet Union out of a struggle among party sycophants who had to maneuver through a minefiled of shifting loyalties and sprung vendettas. At times, the scheming and vectors of implication become so convoluted as to be numbing, but Iannucci incorporates genius casing to make it all easier to follow. In effect, the actors show off their most iconic public images so as to give the viewer a grip on their characters’ respective personalities. Buscemi’s Krushchev is all blistering sarcasm and withering one-liners. Jeffrey Tambor’s bewigged Georgy Malenkov is the epitome of opportunistic obsequeousness. Michael Palin lends the foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, the kind of intemperate hail-fellow-well-met attitude that characterized his most iconic Monty Python characters while injecting it all with acute paranoia.
Though the style is extreme slapstick of the Abbot and Costello variety, the comedy works so well because of our prejudices about Soviet life. In the brilliant opening scene, a Radio Moscow director (Paddy Considine) is forced to recreate the performance of a Mozart concerto that was just aired because Stalin wants a copy of it and he forgot to record it. The hapless bureaucrat scrambles around trying to persuade the orchestra, pianist, and conductor (another must be found) to do it again while also pulling people off the street to sit in the audience. The ludicrousness of the situation is compounded by the notion that this probably happened the way it did. (Apparently, something like this did, in fact, occur.)
Though the script is based on a graphic novel, the movie is pure cinema in the old style. Iannucci interweaves what are basically two- and three-person sketches into the fabric of a story that is believable despite the use of non-dialectical English and oversized caricatures. Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrenti Beria, the most fearsome survivor of Stalin’s regime, is the kind of oily salesman you want on your team but would damn to hell if he came at you from the other side. He’s the most sinister figure in the film and also the funniest because…well, he can have you killed in the wink of an eye. This is the comedy of perfect timing, and the performances, not to mention the on-the-nose editing, keep the pace galloping without dropping a single gag. If The Death of Stalin doesn’t quite match In the Loop in terms of macabre horror, it’s only because pre-60s Soviet culture is too far away to make us care about the ill fates of these men’s subjects the way we trembled at the more credible damage the Bush-Blair era did on the American and Brisith peoples. It’s easier to laugh at stupid, self-destructive Russians than at our own deluded selves.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Cine Quinto (03- 3477-5905), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
The Death of Stalin home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Mitico-Main Journey-Gaumont-France 3 Cinema-AFPI-Panache Productions- La Cie Cinematographique-Death of Stalin the Film Ltd.