Konchalovsky's tribute to 'pure' Soviet soul tipped for Venice win

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Venice (AFP)

A paean to the "pure" soul of the Soviet people by Russian master Andrei Konchalovsky has emerged as one of the frontrunners for the top prize at the Venice film festival.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin may have slaughtered millions of his people, but he can do no wrong for the good women of Novocherkassk who feature in Konchalovsky’s new film, "Dear Comrade".

"If only Stalin were still alive... he knew what to do," one of them says. "Prices didn't go up under Stalin, they went down," says another.

Based on the hushed up massacre of 26 striking workers under Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev in 1962, ambivalence is everything in the latest offering from the one of Russia's most renowned film and theatre directors.

The movie is "not about politics or even the event itself. It's a fairytale," Konchalovsky told AFP. "It’s about the characters, and they are good and bad at the same time."

None more so than one of the most ambiguous KGB officers ever to grace the screen.

At the heart of the film, however, is a powerful Soviet woman, a war veteran and diehard communist official who is forced to choose between her striker daughter and the Party.

- 'Russia unsuited to open capitalism' -

She is played by Konchalovsky’s fifth wife, Julia Vysotskaya, who was born in Novocherkassk, the old Don Cossacks capital where the killings took place.

Shot in black and white, the director said he set out to "scrupulously reproduce 1960s USSR".

"I think the postwar Soviet people, the ones who fought in World War II until victory, deserve to have a movie that pays tribute to their purity," he said.

And his heroine is nothing if not that.

"The tragic dissonance when they realised how different communist ideals were from the reality around them" is where what Konchalovsky called the "film’s three strings -- love, tears and horror" -- kick in.

But it is also a meditation on power, and on a more eternal Russia, a country Konchalovsky insisted is not mentally suited to "open market capitalism in a good sense".

"The last 30 years after the crash of the Soviet Union proved that," said the 83-year-old, whose father wrote the lyrics for the old communist national anthem.

Unlike his younger brother, the Oscar-winning director of "Burnt by the Sun", Nikita Mikhalkov, who has always been close to Putin, Konchalovsky has maintained a diplomatic distance from the Kremlin.

Earlier this year, however, he came out in support of a constitutional referendum that could allow Putin to stay in power to 2036.

The Russian leader also gave the Pope a copy of Konchalovsky’s film "Sin" on his last Vatican visit.

To those perturbed by this and the film’s messaging about Stalin, which echoes Putin's efforts to rehabilitate "The Man of Steel", Konchalovsky has an answer.

- 'Greed was controlled' -

"I wanted you to be disturbed because every great leader in history made a massacre. Think about Napoleon... the leader’s role is tragic because he is indemnified (shielded) from taking the lives of others.

"That is a tragic contradiction of history," he added, and another of the great "ambivalences of world. A lot of communists were very pure, very idealistic, with no idea how it could turn out," the director argued.

"Our parents’ generation were very Sovietic in a good sense."

Vysotskaya agrees, saying they were not motivated by money.

"Most of them believed they were creating something very special, something good for mankind.

"Even those in top level government had only one coat. It tells you something about their spirit."

Terrible things were done, the actress conceded, but Russia travelled centuries in decades.

"From the 1917 revolution when 90 percent of the population couldn't read to the 1950s and 1960s when they were — and still are — reading more than any nation in Europe," Vysotskaya said.

"Who are we to judge? I just have to do my acting job."

While Konchalovsky batted away any contemporary comparisons with protests in Belarus, he admitted that "something is changing drastically — everybody requires social justice in one sense or another.

"It's very interesting how the world will change towards the left, not the extreme left... but toward social justice," he said.

"The Russian experiment" with Communism may have failed but "greed was controlled by the state and I think it’s very important that the next society is going to be a society that greed is going to be controlled and suppressed. And that's basically socialism."