‘The Death of Stalin’ makes a point by treating ruthless Soviet leaders as fools

SHARE ‘The Death of Stalin’ makes a point by treating ruthless Soviet leaders as fools

Dermot Crowley (left) plays Kaganovich, with Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan, Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov and Paul Chahidi as Bulganin, in “The Death of Stalin.” IFC FILMS

The culture ministry of Russia has banned the satiric film “The Death of Stalin” because it makes fun of certain revered historical figures and symbols and events of the mid-20th century.

Russian officials described the film as “blasphemous” and “vile, repugnant and insulting,” according to news reports. Pavel Pozhigailo of the ministry said the film depicts “our great war marshals as … idiots.”

Well, yeah. That’s pretty much the point.

Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, “The Death of Stalin” is a broad but pointed political satire in the tradition of “Duck Soup,” “The Great Dictator,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Candidate” and “Wag the Dog,” to name just a few, and by banning the film in 2018, the culture ministry of Russia couldn’t have made a more convincing case for why the world needs to see it.

From start to finish, director/co-writer Armando Iannucci (creator of HBO’s brilliant “Veep”) delivers an audacious and insightful and ridiculous and hilarious send-up that reminded me of the classic Monty Python films of the 1970s and 1980s. (In fact, Python legend Michael Palin appears here in a relatively small but pivotal role.)

Though the film is set in the Soviet Union of 1953, and nearly all of the main characters are historical Russian figures, the actors not only speak English, they have accents ranging from upper-crust British to Cockney to American.

You’d have to be an idiot and/or the member of an oppressive government’s culture ministry to not get the joke.

Adrian McLoughlin strikes just the right notes as Stalin, the megalomaniacal and barbaric ruler who enjoys making his associates grovel while terrorizing the populace. Simon Russell Beale delivers award-worthy work as Beria, the head of the secret police, who casually executes enemies, perceived and real.

Stalin’s toadies are obsessed with staying on his good side. Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov freaks out when an anecdote he tells Stalin at dinner falls flat. When Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev returns home from a night in Stalin’s company, he has his wife take copious notes on which jokes worked and which jokes fell flat.

When Stalin takes ill and eventually dies, there’s a mad grab for power that commences somewhere between the “takes ill” and “dies” part. Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev et al jockey for position while scheming against each other, lying to each other — and always professing party loyalty in case their conversations are being recorded.

Slapstick justice ensues. Big laughs are scored at the expense of killer buffoons who have the tables turned on them.

But as in the case of all satires that resonate, “The Death of Stalin” goes deeper than balloon-popping punch lines.

Andrea Riseborough’s portrayal of Svetlana Stalin is grounded and real. Olga Kurylenko’s work as the pianist Maria Yudina, whose f— you note to Stalin is the catalyst for this tale, is serious stuff.

All the best comedies contain serious messages.

And all the best countries aren’t so insecure as to ban freedom of expression.


IFC Films presents a film directed by Armando Iannucci and written by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin, based on the comic books by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Rated R (for language throughout, violence and some sexual references). Running time: 97 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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