Novocherkask, 1962. Ludmila (Julia Vysotskaya) is an official of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and nostalgic devotee of Josef Stalin, the “father” who died nine years earlier for whom she fought in World War II. Convinced that her curatorial work contributes to the creation of a communist society, she abhors all manifestations of anti-Soviet sentiment, at the same time that she gains complicities like that of a merchant who, amid the shortage of basic goods, manages to have some imported delicatessen to give Ludmila.
During a strike at a local factory, however, the official watches in disbelief as a picket of workers is shot down by order of the government. After the bloodbath, when the survivors flee the square, he realizes that his daughter has disappeared. Now, amid the city blockade, mass arrests and official attempts to cover up the massacre and protests, he will be looking for her everywhere.
The story on which it is based Dear comrades, a film by Andréi Konchalovsky that won the Special Jury Prize at Venice 2020 and premiered locally at Sanfic 2021, is documented but hardly known in its time. Half a century later, a Russian television series broadcast it widely (Once upon a time in rostov, 2012), but it was not to the liking of the legendary filmmaker Siberian and Mary’s Lovers, so a film “a la Konchalovsky” appeared on the horizon.
What kind of movie did this turn out to be? To begin with, not one where the filmmaker recriminates himself for not having known in his time of the massacre, inserted as he himself says that his family was “in the elite of the Soviet intelligentsia.” Neither is it an exercise in historical interpretation nor a past Manichean account of the former holders of absolute power.
“What I do is bring to the screen my reflections about the human being, about his reasons: why we are alive and what forces are behind our lives”, elaborates via Zoom the scriptwriter, director and musician, making some corporal emphasis highlighted by the trio of golden rings that inhabit the ring and little finger of his left hand (while in the background the green of a garden with park features appears in his house in Tuscany, to where he periodically starts from Moscow with his wife, the Vysotskaya mentioned, and their two sons).
The filmmaker, also dedicated to theater and opera, says that a few years ago he was in Italy adapting Antigone with her spouse in the lead role, when it struck her that the latter could star in a Greek tragedy on the big screen. “And I started to think what the story could be,” he continues. “Then the idea of that historical moment came up, plus the idea of making a film about a war veteran, a staunch Stalinist. How will you react if the party orders a proletarian crowd to be shot? There is the ambivalence of life ”.
Therefore, he says, his latest film is not about the little story or history with capital letters, but about psychological violence: “The Greek tragedy is usually a great psychological shock at the end of which people are often perplexed. It does not happen like in Hollywood movies, in which there is a good and a bad, and the good guy throws the bad guy off the bridge. In life everything is very ambiguous, everything is mixed: beauty and ugliness, wisdom and stupidity. So that was my interest as an artist: to leave the public perplexed ”.
Over six decades Konchalovsky has been forging a career that the critic Rubén Redondo has described as “one of the strangest and most heterogeneous in the history of cinema.” Dear comrades, for example, happened to The sin (2019), a Russian-Italian co-production that had him staging the creative act of Michelangelo himself (Vladimir Putin gave a DVD of the film to Pope Francis on an official visit to the Vatican, highly recommending it). And this came after Paradise (2016), which exhibits the unlikely encounter of three very different characters during World War II.
There are also the dozens of productions, fictional and documentary, shot in different languages and in different countries, displaying a range that goes from Anton Chekhov to Sylvester Stallone.
The director once said that his mother was friends with such renowned Soviet filmmakers as Alexander Dovzhenko (The earth) and Sergei Eisenstein (The battleship Potemkin), and that the latter led him to the filming of Ivan, the terrible being he a child. One of his great-grandparents, likewise, was such an outstanding painter that even today his works are not lacking in state galleries, while his father was the poet in charge of putting the lyrics to the hymn of the USSR. In short, he was not an outsider. Rather the opposite.
Andréi Sergueievich Konchalovsky was born in Moscow on August 20, 1937. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory Higher School of Music (1957), he completed his studies in film directing in 1965, after having minor roles in a couple of films, including they Ivan’s childhood (1962), Andrei Tarkovski’s first opera. Together with the future director of Solaris and The Mirror, he would also co-write the scripts for The childhood… and of Andrei Rubliov (1966-69), but no one, starting with Konchalovsky himself, would say that they were very similar in the artistic.
“We were colleagues, partners and rivals: with the girls, with ideas and with everything,” says the director today with a laugh. But Tarkovski was rather intuitive: “I could never explain what I wanted. He could never explain to me what I was supposed to write, or explain to any actor what I had to do. (…) He was static, and his films too. I could not stand it. I would tell him to cut such a part, that it was boring, and he would tell me, ‘you just don’t understand’. Anyway, that was Tarkovsky at his best: ambivalence and architectural form. My thing was music. That’s why we parted ways ”.
In 1965, inspired by Akira Kurosawa, he made The First Teacher and then Asya Klyachina’s story (1966), whose exhibition would only be allowed in 1988. Meanwhile, his adaptation of Uncle Vania (1970) received the Silver Shell in San Sebastián. Four years later Romance of Lovers would become a local hit, being watched by 40 million people. Siberian, finally, it was the last film he signed as Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (before publicly ceasing to share his surname with his brother and colleague Nikita Mikhalkov): Special jury prize at Cannes 1979, this monumental film, showing the lives of three generations , would arrive years later on the Normandie screen, also marking a farewell.
In the early 1980s, after receiving the title of People’s Artist by the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, Konchalovsky married a French citizen and decided to go to the West to make films, not to mention Hollywood. Account today that he did not ask permission to leave. That he simply left and did not return for a long time. That was ripped off.
In the USA, it reached an early agreement with Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who in 1979 had bought the production company Cannon Films to make it a very rare studio that competed with the big boys and which financed Chuck films in parallel. Norris and John Cassavetes. For them did Mary’s Lovers (1984), romantic drama well received by the public and critics, after which came Escape by train (1985), which won infinite praise from Jon Voight and even Eric Roberts, which is saying. Then there were titles like Shy people (1987), which received the highest rating from critic Roger Ebert. But a mixture of police and comedy called Tango & Cash (1989), produced by Warner Bros., marked the beginning of the end for a Hollywood expedition that Konchalovsky examines in retrospect today.
“Russians are chameleonic in a sense,” says the filmmaker, after paraphrasing a famous tribute by Dostoevsky to Pushkin. “I like to feel the aroma of different cultures, of different countries. And I think the films I made in the US reflected American life very well, yet they were influenced by Dostoevsky’s philosophy. ” However, Tango & Cash “was a kind of Godzilla [hace un gesto godzilliano con los brazos] which led me to realize that it was not made for that type of film. “
It is not accidental, Konchalovsky considers today, that Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa have tried to make films in Hollywood and that it has not worked for them: “They could not because they were authors [auteurs], and I, as a Soviet, as a product of Soviet life, was an author. Because Soviet directors were controlled only by ideological censorship, but not by artistic censorship. Artistically, we could do whatever we wanted ”.
How do you manage today with your own production company?
I prefer to produce my films and be out of anyone’s control. I’m just looking for people who trust me and give me money. I have a friendship with a very rich businessman, Alisher Usmanov, who is for me as Lorenzo de Medici was for Michelangelo. He was the only wealthy person who didn’t panic when I asked him if he would mind not getting his money back. It is a patronage: nobody thinks about the return of the money.
Don’t you need to make commercially successful movies?
I don’t have to think about how much money a movie is going to raise: if I do badly, it is not something that is going to ruin my career. I have been working like this since 2013: in the four films I have made since then I have felt free of all obligations, commercially speaking. It is a huge luxury, of course, especially today in Russia, which has a very primitive, very feudal capitalism, where most of the producers are absolute dictators: they can twist any idea, they think about money and nothing else. But Usmanov sponsors my films because he wants to see them.
Is there anything else you want to do?
I’ve been dreaming of traveling to Chile for a long time, so let someone know about film business I’d like to go with a retrospective of my movies, or something like that. I am ready to go in the summer.