Dir. Rustem Abdrashev. Kazakhstan/Russia/Poland/Israel 2008. 97 mins.
Rustem Abdrashev’s somewhat over-saccharined story of an orphaned exile in 1940s Kazakhstan instantly joins the ranks of films like Kolya and Cinema Paradiso - in which gruff, lonely, elderly men change the lives of photogenic young boys and rake it in at the box office in the process. Gorgeously-shot and composed, The Gift To Stalin won’t appeal to cineastes, who may feel they’ve seen it all before, but despite some narrative hiccups this is still the type of accessible foreign-language film which used to charm general audiences in droves (Burnt by The Son, Il Postino, et al).
Currently without an international sales agent, The Gift To Stalin could, with decisive tweaking - including the removal of a muddled narration - play to more general arthouses internationally. While the story is not particularly sophisticated, it is affecting and Abdrashev’s stunning location work on the Kazakh Steppes will be more than enough to attract the armchair traveller.
Taking the Philippe Noiret role is giant Kazakh actor Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev, who plays Kasym, and his scarred, one-eyed countenance dominates The Gift To Stalin. Writer Pavel Finn unexpectedly starts proceedings in modern-day Jerusalem and immediately flashes back to 1949, where a train full of Moscow Jews is being relocated to Kazakhstan in scenes which would seem to come from the Holocaust - a post-film codicil tells the audience that 1.2m ‘ethnic minorities’ were relocated in this way between 1930 and 1949 as part of Stalin’s purges, before the ‘great leader’ experimented with atomic bombs in the unfortunate region.
A young boy (Shintemirov), later renamed Sabyr by Kasym, loses his grandfather on the journey and when the train stops near a remote village to unload its dead bodies for burial, he joins the corpses in a bid to escape. Here, he is found by the widowed Kasym, who makes a rash, if human, decision to bring the boy to his village - whatever the risk to Sabyr, himself, or the other villagers might be.
Given this, it’s abundantly clear that Sabyr’s relationship with Kasym won’t be a long one and there will be a parting of the ways - it’s just a question of how and when. An evil Russian army major and a nasty local policeman vie for the role of villain, with the local, Bulgabi (Khoja), winning out, and Sabyr’s deportation is only delayed by the unwilling charms of fellow deportee Verka (Rednikova).
References are made to Kasym, a devoute Muslim, being slow, but he is no victim. The relationship between Kasym and Sabyr is delightfully played out, amidst an air of tension heightened by Verka’s abuse. Her marriage to the village’s Polish doctor is less successfully-handled, if necessary to the plot, but Abdrashev wisely moves on quickly to a tear-jerking resolution.
A Gift To Stalin has two stars: Ikhtimbaev, who towers over the proceedings, and the Kazakh landscape, lovingly shot by native son Abdrashev. A running time of 97 minutes may suit the story, but it still leaves the viewer wanting more of cinematographer Khasan Kidiraliev’s framing. A doleful, flute-y soundtrack is mercifully sparse but could be sparser.
+ 7 812 7145 049