The tenth story in Marguerite de Navarre’s 1558 collection of stories, ‘The Heptameron’ is, tonally, a far cry from the indomitable Andrei Konchalovsky’s 22nd feature directorial effort, Dear Comrades! One is a noble tale of desire and desperation, the other is a startling black and white portrait of a woman (Yuliya Vysotskaya) roaming physically and emotionally through ongoing dissent in 1960s Russia. June 2, 1962, to be exact, though the inhumanity endured for much longer than 24 hours – try decades, not days. But these specific dates are when Konchalovsky devotes his attention, a time when workers in the city of Novocherkassk have seen their wages plummet and the price of necessary goods spike.
But it’s a particular passage from the tenth story that finds its way into relevancy as it pertains to this Russian film: “Is it better for a man to speak or die?” asks de Navarre’s Amadour. By this point, Amadour is wholly reticent, despondent even, since his love for Lady Florida — who is too high-born to be with him — can never foster. She responds, “There are few words that cannot be mended, but life once lost can never be regained.” 26 people were killed at Novocherkassk when the KGB opened fire on protestors that aforesaid June; they suffered the latter fate. People like Vysotskaya’s Lyuda Syomina tend to do anything but suffer. Their voices are used in such a way that feels manufactured, robotic. And such industrialism is exactly what keeps them safe.
Lyuda – a woman who’s seen the course of her life charted on one path only, that being the straight and narrow – heads the production sector on Novocherkassk’s City Committee. She was a nurse during World War II and has yet to move on from standing by the famed dictator whose reign stretched through that period. She maintains a staid demeanor: if not icy, she’s at the very least stiff. This is a woman who, it seems, has never rested her bare feet on a sunlit ledge of a deck in the summertime; of course, her feet have always been swathed in stockings and clog-like shoes. Her diplomatic faith, unwavering, is something she pumps into every waking moment of her life. Sometimes it’s conscious (she demands her father take off his old Army stripes because, should someone see him, he could be viewed as an ideological traitor) and sometimes not (recounting Soviet rhetoric disguised as original thought in day-to-day conversation).
Not far into the film, an alarm disrupts a committee meeting. It blares to signal that the factory workers have gone on strike, a move that these seemingly encoded council members perhaps expected, but still feel entirely slighted by. The situation room becomes a taut realm, where nerves heighten, intensified scowls coat faces, and disbelief fades to become terror.
Lyuda steps up to be the company’s stalwart, recommending the maximum penalty for the striking workers – who by these higher-ups are routinely called every name in the book over these two hours. The penalty ends up being death, and while scrambling out of her government building toward safety, Lyuda diverts off the straight and narrow for the first. She travels – heart first, for once – into the carnage for she fears her daughter, Svetka, may be buried in the crowd.
What follows is more or less a film about conquest and reclamation. The Soviet army fears that their nation of blind civility has been found out, and they’ll do whatever they must to take it back from the brink. The other side believes that their regulated freedom has been ripped from their already-loose grasps, and this strike is the only rational response. Lyuda’s situation isn’t nearly as sweeping, but rests at the heart of the film for good reason. Her desperate pursuit for the one thing in this world she values with love instead of ideology isn’t meant to be an act of defection, though subliminally, her efforts fall in direct violation of the creed to which she’s pledged.
In depicting this internal conflict, Vysotskaya offers a technical performance that cinematographer Andrey Navdyonov tracks with a great deal of composure. Her eyes seem stuck, pried open wider than what is otherwise natural. Her breath is short, not staccato, but as though it has been knocked out of her and she’s taking gradual steps toward reclaiming. But she walks, for the most part, without too much haste. She has a professional standard to maintain, after all, and anything but a collected march is fishy.
The film’s signature performance is one of a plethora of directional juxtapositions that Konchalovsky has a rather obvious penchant for — the man appreciates irony, in lesser words. At one pre-climax juncture, he places a regional superior atop a balcony, where he talks down to (literally and allegorically) the common folk. “Comrades, we live in a wonderful time” he claims in an effort to reduce the tension. They don’t believe it. Does he? Does anyone? Even earlier, a worker friend asks Lyuda, “Are we going to starve?” Lyuda scoffs at the suggestion off hand. “These conversations are why this is happening,” she says of the unrest. “Keep your mouth shut.” She then fetches the free goods she’s received from this friend and jets off to the job that helps to regulate the pricing of those same goods, the ones regular citizens can no longer afford.
To describe Dear Comrades! in a way that Konchalovsky can appreciate, it’s a film that, if you look closely, is largely about blindness. Much of Lyuda’s professional life has been seen with blinders on; it takes the very possibility of tragedy to help her see. It forces her eyes open, and it forces her to speak. “We shall be better,” she pledges before the screen goes black. Does she believe it? Perhaps. Will she be back to work on Monday? Who knows. Powerfully and pointedly, Konchalovsky lets it be left unsaid. How ironic.