An ambitious vidbio pegged at $ 10 million stretches from 1917 to 1973, but the attempt to understand the Georgian despot through Paul Monash’s teleplay fails. Played valiantly by Robert Duvall wearing brown contact lenses and makeup looking like papier-mache, this Josef Stalin raises few passions; the tyrant remains elusive.
“Stalin” deals not so much with historical results as with more intimate matters–Stalin craftily making his way up the political ladder, dealing coldly with his two sons, softening over wife Nadya and daughter Svetlana, observing a ballerina as the “Dying Swan”– with these the vidpic hints at the human being inside.
Telefilm, directed impressively by Ivan Passer, goes all out with location work, using many of the actual sites where events took place– Stalin’s dacha, his offices at the Ministry of Defense, Kremlin areas and Lenin’s own apartment, just for starters. But scenic authenticity is no substitute for dramatic or historical clarity.
Vidpic concentrates on his ruthlessness, his manipulations, his disregard for friendship.
Thanks to Passer’s touch and to Duvall’s sly, telling eyework, Stalin marks everything and everyone around him. As a shocking acknowledgement of his power and treachery, “Stalin” follows the assassination of Kirov (Kevin McNally), which becomes almost a cottage industry. Assignments, accusations, shootings all fall into place in Monash’s recitation of Stalin’s methods; well over 20 million Soviets die thanks to Stalin’s decisions.
Telepic, narrated by his daughter Svetlana (Joanna Roth), cunningly integrates contemporary
film with vintage footage, using Stanislas Syrewicz’s generous score as a bridge.
Filmed in bold colors by Vilmos Zsigmond, “Stalin” moves forward vigorously, if at times confusedly, since IDs are difficult.
Those unfamiliar with Soviet historical figures will be floored; others, recalling the real-life Molotov, Beria and Khrushchev, will wonder about those fellows.
Duvall, looking confined because of the makeup, plays through the character to convey essences by using shrewd body language.
Julia Ormond glows as Nadya and Maximilian Schell is uncannily exact as Lenin. McNally’s Kirov, Daniel Massey’s Trotsky, Jim Carter and Stella Gonet as Sergo and wife Zina, Aleksander Feklistov’s Nicolayev, are noteworthy.
Screened theatrically in Moscow, vidpic reportedly stirred up controversy and partisanship. How much American TV watchers will find to stir them up is another question; as with Russia itself, Stalin remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.