Last week Martin Scorsese tried wriggling his way out of artistic responsibility, but this week Russia’s Andrei Konchalovsky teaches by example. Konchalovsky made both Dear Comrades and Sin before current global crises, but now, released as the first serious movies of the new year, each one pertains to the problems facing the American “content” culture — confusion, ambition, demoralization — that made Scorsese squirm.
Dear Comrades uncannily complements Biden-Harris-era panic by re-creating the massacre and clampdown of striking locomotive workers in Novocherkassk in 1962. In Sin, which anatomizes Michelangelo Buonarroti’s creative struggle during the Renaissance, we see the specter of political pressure on the artistic spirit.
Unlike Scorsese, Konchalovsky flouts the Netflixing of film culture; these are real movies, visually keen aesthetic expressions, not mere “content.” Old-school cineaste Konchalovsky, whose best film remains his 1972 version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, dramatizes characters and dilemmas that connect the present to our Western heritage. (If he cast Daniel Kaluuya as Alexander Pushkin, he’d be filmmaker of the month for Antifa and Black Lives Matter.)
in’s Michelangelo (Alberto Testone) carries the weight of personal, national, soulful obligations; Konchalovksy’s exalted visual style recalls Franco Zeffirelli’s classical imagery in the underrated film about Saint Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun and Sister Moon; so does the spiritual, homoerotic tension between the genius artist’s creative struggle and his practical career maneuvers — the best drama of its kind since Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato.
Dear Comrades concerns the hubris of political devotion, a subject so relevant that it’s almost a satirical mirror of our current betrayal by government and the media. That irony gives the film urgency. It’s not a “masterpiece,” but the reflection of political bewilderment (Sixties Russia compared to sycophantic Millennial America) makes Dear Comrades feel like a life lesson.