This vigorous epic is loosely based on the true story of a projectionist who showed movies to Stalin from 1935 until the Soviet leader’s death in 1953. Director and co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian living in France, isn’t embalming history; he’s revivifying it — provocatively, hypnotically — to make a point about blind allegiance to government. The film is as pertinent as Oliver Stone’s JFK and a damn sight more responsible.
Tim Hulce (Amadeus) stars as Ivan Sanshin, a naive bumpkin who works as a projectionist for the KGB club. A purge disrupts Ivan on the night of his wedding to Anastasia, well played by Lolita Davidovich (Blaze); a Jewish couple — celebrating with the Sanshins — is carted off while Anastasia comforts the couple’s frightened young daughter, Katya. That same night, Ivan is taken to the Kremlin to replace Stalin’s projectionist. The job is top-secret; he can’t even tell his wife.
It is is no problem for Ivan, who loves Stalin more than anyone, even Anastasia, who irks him by visiting Katya in an orphanage. Hulce’s tragic-clown face is ideal for the role. Ivan’s proximity to Stalin (Aleksandr Zbruev is the spitting image) leaves him giddy.
Though Ennio Guarnieri’s location photography in the Kremlin is striking, the most memorable scenes are the intimate ones that show Ivan in the plush screening room, rubbing shoulders with Stalin and the power elite, including KGB head Beria (a robustly evil Bob Hoskins). Nothing like watching Hollywood movies after a day of murderous oppression. Ivan, the trusting Everyman who makes Stalin’s tyranny possible, won’t see the irony — not even in the face of personal loss. Despite melodramatic lapses, Konchalovsky serves up history on a human scale and filmmaking of a high order.