CIFF Dispatch: Dear Comrades!, Charlatan, Notturno, Padrenostro, Mama Gloria

Dear Comrades!

At the tender age of 83, veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky returns to his homeland to deliver a meticulous recreation of a brutal moment in Russia’s history that’s mostly been erased from memory. Shot beautifully in Academy ratio black-and-white and centred on a narrative that burns with immediate pertinency, Dear Comrades! is wisely injected with occasionally satirical stabs to balance out its overall bleakness.

Set over the course of three days in June 1962, Dear Comrades! is told through Novocherkassk resident Lyuda (Julia Vysotskaya), a privileged official to the Soviet Union’s Communist Party whose devotion to the Party stretches back to the days of Joseph Stalin. While Lyuda may bemoan the soaring cost of food behind closed doors, she remains loyal to current Premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. When a labour strike occurs at the local electric locomotive factory, Lyuda’s impressionable teenage daughter, Sveta (Julia Burova) joins the cause. But when Moscow becomes involved with brutal retaliation and Sveta goes missing, Lyuda’s eyes are soon opened to the human toll of state-sanctioned violence.

You’re unlikely to have heard of the Novocherkassk Massacre, especially considering the USSR led a major cover-up operation that kept it hidden from the world until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992. Konchalovsky pulls few punches in exposing the shameful government cover-up that included bodies disappearing from morgues and total censorship of media coverage of the event. But his deft recreation of the massacre itself is necessarily brutal and perfectly captures the horrors experienced by those in the crossfire. Cemented by a heartbreaking performance by Vysotskaya and the evocative cinematography of Andrey Naydenov, Dear Comrades! serves as a powerful history lesson with inescapable parallels to the current political climate.

Charlatan

The Czech Republic’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards, Charlatan is a slightly frustrating biopic that’s littered with ambiguity that leaves you yearning for more. While the terrific performance of veteran Czech actor Ivan Trojan ultimately saves the film, Charlatan is likely to leave a bad taste in your mouth with its deification of a historical figure whose complex image never truly shines through.

The film centres on Jan Mikolášek (Trojan), a Czech faith healer and herbalist who cured thousands in the 1930s using only his intuition and familiarity with plants. Known for treating both the rich and the poor, Mikolášek is urged to flee the Czech Republic after the death of his close friend and patient President Antonin Zápotocký. With his most powerful ally gone, Mikolášek’s notorious reputation arouses the attention of the incoming Communist Party and is soon arrested on trumped-up charges that could lead to the death penalty.

Director Agnieszka Holland clearly has a strong fondness for Mikolášek, as she seeks to craft a biopic that pays heavy tribute to his miraculous skills. However, this romanticism of his image is at the expense of truly exploring who he was and why the Communist Party were so intent on destroying him. Holland crafts a fictional gay romance with Mikolášek’s assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) that adds depth to his character by virtue of creating conflict with his Catholicism. Yet, we’re left in the dark as to Mikolášek’s possible homosexuality was the cause of his arrest. Trojan’s stoic performance elevates this film beyond its narrative missteps, but Charlatan asks too many questions it seems unwilling to answer.

Notturno

Shot over the course of three years across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Kurdistan by Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, Notturno captures the devastating impact of years of warfare on this region’s locals, particularly its innocent children. The documentary is loaded with necessarily dark subject matter (hence its title), yet it still offers a ray of hope that the next generation of the Middle East can find a way to end the relentless cycle of violence and reach the dawn after the darkness of night.

While the documentary begins with a title card stating the locations of the three-year shoot, Rosi offers no further information to specify the setting of each of his subjects. It’s hard to know specifically why he’s made this decision, but perhaps Rosi simply felt the location of each of his vignettes was unimportant to his overarching portrait of communal grief and pain experienced across an entire region. The effects of ISIS are widespread and the result is the same, no matter the country.

With stunning cinematography that has no right being so downright beautiful in such a bleak film, Rosi’s photography captures the often unseen majesty of a war-torn region in a habitual state of reoccurring trauma. Despite such gorgeous imagery, Rosi never allows it to hide the deep horrific experiences of his subjects, who paint a stark portrait of daily life in the Middle East. There’s an element of the resilience of the human spirit here, but it’s hardly something worth celebrating when the light at the end of the tunnel just seems to get further away every day.

Whether it’s the sight of grieving mothers visiting the abandoned prison their sons were tortured and killed inside or a classroom of children comfortably describing witnessing ISIS beheadings on the streets of their neighbourhood as if they’re discussing scenes from a war film, Notturno provides a staggering insight into the casualties of war and the people who live with these tragedies on a daily basis.

Padrenostro

Italy’s contentious period of social and political turmoil from the late 196os to the late 1980s has been an era cinema has extensively covered. It’s in these “Years of Lead” that writer/director Claudio Noce experienced a traumatic event that forms the basis of his third feature film, Padrenostro. In 1976, his debut police chief father survived an assassination attempt that has haunted Noce his entire life. While Padrenostro is clearly a cathartic, personal film for Noce, it’s damaged by an undercooked screenplay and chaotic direction that loses sight of its narrative intention.

Mama Gloria

A joyous celebration of an LGBTQ+ icon, Mama Gloria is a brief but enjoyable look a the life of charismatic Chicago transgender activist Gloria Allen. At only 76 minutes long, the documentary loses much of its potential impact by virtue of messy editing and fractured structure. But the luminous Mama Gloria makes for a fascinating cinematic subject (a biopic is long overdue) and her trailblazing life story deserves celebrating in any form.

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Luchina Fisher makes her directorial debut with a project dedicated to a mother’s unwavering love. The subject is close to Fisher’s heart, given she is the mother of a transgender daughter, and Fisher pays particular attention to Allen’s mother who supported her daughter through her transition surgery. Fisher paints a hasty portrait of Allen’s entire life, from her childhood where she first experienced gender dysphoria, to her years as a key figure in Chicago’s South Side drag ball culture.

Allen’s story truly comes to life when she fully transitions and becomes a fierce activist for trans rights, which sees her the target of hatred and violence. Surprisingly, nothing in Allen’s life has affected her unrelenting positivity and self-love attitude, casting her as the optimistic leader the queer community so often needs. It’s refreshing to see an LGBTQ+ documentary focus on the brighter side of its subject’s life, but Mama Gloria feels too rushed and undeveloped to affectively do its subject justice.