Film Critic Luis Freijo expresses his adoration for The Death of Stalin, the new film from famed satirist Armando Ianucci
The best proof of cinema’s essence as an art based on lies, deception and magical mutation is its ability to transform a terrible truth into a fun spectacle without losing the original sense of horror. Monty Python based their whole career on that idea, and it seems that Armando Ianucci is the rightful heir of that British paradigm after writing and directing his second feature film. The Death of Stalin is a satire set in the aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s death, when top members of the Communist Party Committee held a ruthless struggle in order to determine who would be the new strong man of the Soviet Union.
Ianucci has developed a very recognisable style over the years working for TV. Both The Thick of It and Veep are sharp, edgy, quick series, full of a corrosive sense of humour, complicated schemes and fast dialogues. So is In the Loop, his previous film, which portrayed in a subtle and yet obvious manner the political manipulations that, eventually, led to Iraq’s war. The Death of Stalin follows that same path, maybe with even more cruel irony in its depiction of Kruschev, Beria, Molotov and the rest of those illustrious personas.
The movie relies on an excellent script. It might seem very easy for the spectator to get lost in a film like this, with so many intrincate plots outlined by different characters, specially if they are not familiar with Soviet history. However, the screenwriting really manages to avoid that peril by offering a very clear development, a bunch of crazy political figures and tons of black humour. Because that’s the main strength of the film: you are definitely going to laugh along with The Death of Stalin. The impossibility of some silly situations, a very clever mise-en-scène and some surrealistic touches will inevitably result in roaring laughter. Furthermore, there is a perfect equilibrium between intelligent, acid humour (mostly displayed by Kruschev, Molotov and Beria) and some silly, dumb comedy (thanks to the stupid Malenkov, the violent Field Marshall Zhukov or Vasily, Stalin’s unbalanced son). This balance allows different types of audiences and humour sensibilities to enjoy the movie.
This kind of political comedy needed to be directed with energy, and that’s what Ianucci does. Although most of the movie’s action happens in corridors, offices and meeting rooms, the narration is always moving using quick editing and, specially, travelling shots following personages while they walk, talk and plot. Thus, you have the feeling of a high rythm and constant movement, a dynamism that forbids boredom.
The director has also found some very intelligent visual ideas, like the way he presents main characters in slow motion, a trademark for epic and heroic films that mutates here into a ridiculous joke. Of course, the cast is superb. It would seem that skinny Steve Buscemi was not the best option, physically, to play Nikita Kruschev, but he gives a perfect performance. After all, sneaky, slick characters have been a specialty of his throughout his long career, and he proves once again his tremendous knowledge of his trade. He is very well accompanied by Simon Russell Beale, who manages to create a despicable portrait of Lavrenti Beria; Jeffrey Tambor as simple Malenkov, who gets most of the puns in the movie; Monty Python member Michael Palin as Molotov, showing one more time why he belongs to the most brilliant comic assemble; and Jason Isaacs in a hilarious role as the extremely virile Field Marshall Zhukov.
When watching The Death of Stalin, the concepts of “post-truth” and “doublethink” come to mind. It would seem that post-truth, the art of denying factual reality or accepting obvious lies in order for the world to fit into or mental framework, was invented in the Trump era, but this Soviet leaders were already excellent at it in the forties and the fifties. Also, the movie has a very “orwellian” tone, and some of the most hilarious sequences feature that kind of “doublethinking”: for example, Molotov and Kruschev are quite able to claim one thing and its opposite within seconds. Like I said, this is an ambiguous feeling: all this fun and laughter become obscured when we realise that we are witnessing events that actually happened. Authors that met Stalin and his collaborators (for example, Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas, who wrote Conversations with Stalin) have stated the psychopathic manner in which Emperor Stalin ruled the Soviet Union.
Characters’ features are only slightly exaggerated: Beria was a true bastard that held in his fist the secret police; Kruschev really showed his rural face to deceive his political opponents; Molotov was, in truth, excellent at scheming and he survived for many years as Stalin’s right hand by disposing of his opponents; Zhukov really believed in violence as a political weapon, and enjoyed it; they all hated and feared the Leader, and they measured carefully, as we see in the movie, everything they said in front of him in those endless feasts of food and vodka, because a bad joke could have death as a result. And this is why The Death of Stalin is excellent. It fulfils the real goal of the comedy genre: making people laugh while forcing them to reflect on what they are laughing about. Let´s just hope that we can enjoy very soon a new work from Armando Ianucci.
Verdict: The Death of Stalin is a hilarious comedy about power, history and extreme politics that no one should miss, especially if you enjoy black humour. In addition, it’s a lesson about one of the darkest periods, and some of the most ruthless persones, in human history. Educational and entertaining, can we ask for anything else?