The Death of Stalin ***

Who would’ve thought the struggle for Communist power could be this funny?  

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Moscow, 1953. Josef Stalin unexpectedly dies of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Central Committee of the Communist Party descends into chaos, plotting, maneuvering, and manipulating to seize power. This sounds like great drama, and in real life no doubt it was for outside observers. In the hands of director Armando Iannucci, however, “The Death of Stalin” is a farce, a darkly funny look at the murderous and conniving men who revered, but mostly feared, their homicidal dictator.  

We know it’s not to be taken seriously for a variety of reasons. A French graphic novel of the same name inspired the premise, and graphic novels are nothing if not surreal. The non-Russian cast doesn’t bother to speak in Russian accents. The lighthearted opening moments, in which a concert that just finished needs to be redone so it can be recorded for Stalin, nicely sets the tone for the rest of the film. Then there’s this: The film was banned in Russia two days before its scheduled release for many reasons including, according to the Culture Ministry’s advisory board, that “the film desecrates our historical symbols.”

So, good, we can comfortably laugh at murder instructions, death lists, and inviting Catholic bishops to a Communist dictator’s funeral without worrying that any of it will be taken seriously. Best of all, it’s darn funny!

The main players are as reprehensible and yet oddly likeable as they come. Next in line to succeed Stalin is Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), though it’s obvious early on that he has neither the brains nor the cunning to hold on to the position for long. Scheming right behind him – and against one another – are Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), each of whom abuses his power in some way to try to oust the other. Another factor is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who unbeknownst to him was placed on a “death list” the day before Stalin died.

The politicians have one another, public perception, and Stalin’s family to deal with, and that’s no easy task. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) is an emotional wreck, and his son, Vasily (Rupert Friend), is an alcoholic emotional wreck. In one scene Vasily, in a drunken rant, believes the Central Committee stole his father’s brain and sold it to the U.S.

You don’t see farce like “The Death of Stalin” very often on movie screens. The filmmakers have taken the true story of the battle for power after Stalin’s death and made a mockery out of it, with each high-ranking official in some way looking like an absurd buffoon with few (or in the case of Beria, no) redeeming qualities. This is far-fetched, silly and biting, and a better movie because it doesn’t skimp on any of those three things.

Did you know?
The film was released in the U.K. in October 2017 and received two BAFTA (British Oscar) nominations: For Best Screenplay and Outstanding British Film.

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