Picks and Pans Main: Screen
The atmosphere hummed with a mix of celebrity glamour and hush-hush exclusivity at a special Soviet Writers Union showing of Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance one drizzly afternoon last fall in Moscow. As members of the literary elite passed inside, a young woman stood at the doors practically begging for anyone’s extra ticket. Given the content of the film about to be shown, it was no surprise that the censors had decided on a controlled release to a highly select audience. A surreal nightmare about totalitarian terror, Repentance depicts a malevolent dictator who is a dead ringer for Lavrenti Beria, the ruthless chief of Joseph Stalin’s secret police.
Though the film gives no hint of the scale of the terrifying Stalinist purges of the 1930s in which millions perished, the film’s criticisms of the Stalin era are unmistakable. One scene shows women searching through loads of lumber in a freight yard, looking for inscriptions carved on felled trees by their missing men, imprisoned in far-off labor camps. When one woman finds a log with her son’s name on it, she sobs and strokes the coarse wood as if it were her lost child. Going beyond a critique of the distant past, the film even suggests that the unresolved legacy of Stalinism corrupted the next generation of Party leaders and contributed to the contemporary disillusionment of Soviet youth. As the stunned audience at the House of Writers mustered its applause at the end, one viewer declared, “Anti-Soviet film.”
That assessment notwithstanding, Repentance has been playing to packed, incredulous audiences since it opened in Moscow theaters in early February; it is the first of about a dozen previously banned movies being let out of the can since Soviet director Yelem Klimov was elected head of the newly reorganized Union of Cinematographers last year. The relaxation of ideological bans is the biggest news in the Soviet film world, which at any one time has about 110 feature movies (and an equal number of children’s films and cartoons) playing in Moscow’s movie houses for the city’s 9 million citizens. Nearly half are foreign, most from East Bloc countries, but a smattering are American, French, Italian, British and West German, usually dubbed, though crudely, into Russian. Tootsie, for instance, was a smash hit a few years back. More recent American films shown in Moscow include Starman, Irreconcilable Differences, Missing and Convoy. Here is a sampling of other Soviet movie fare: