Script weaknesses overwhelm ethnographic interest, historical tragedy and some solid performances in period drama “The Gift to Stalin.” Pusan fest opener, about an orphaned Jewish boy growing up in the Kazakh steppes, is disappointingly dull. Commercial distribution looks unlikely beyond former Soviet Union territories, though “Gift” could travel to other fests. However, it’s unlikely to stand out from the growing number of quality Kazakh features such as “Tulpan” and “Native Dancer.”
Pic opens on views of contempo Jerusalem, with a voiceover by a mature male who introduces himself as Sabyr. Apart from one brief, later scene showing Sabyr walking in Jerusalem, the rest of the pic is a flashback to his boyhood in 1949 Kazakhstan, explaining how young Sashka (a Russian name) acquired the Kazakh moniker Sabyr.
Eight-year-old Sashka (Dalen Shintemirov) is being transported to the steppes by train along with other refugees, including his grandfather. En route, the old man dies clutching a Hebrew prayer book, which leaves little chance for Sashka to be reunited with his missing parents.
Arriving in the steppes, a feverish Sashka ends up being dumped with the bodies of those who didn’t survive the journey. Russian soldiers order one-eyes Kazakh rail switch worker Kasym (Nurjuman Ikhtimbayev) to transport the corpses for burial but he slyly saves Sashka from being killed.
Kasym takes Sashka to an aging shaman who returns the boy to full health and dubs him Sabyr (“humble”). Subsequently, Kasym and Sabyr reside in a dusty village of refugees who include voluptuous Russian Vera (Yekaterina Rednikova).
Already leisurely, pic further dawdles as it shows the daily adventures of feral children pulling pranks and Vera succumbing to the sexual advances of the local military. Script’s overall fragmented structure never congeals into a cohesive whole. Additionally, the midway insert of Sabyr in present-day Jerusalem robs the movie of any drama about the question of the boy’s survival.
Pic’s title is not referenced until the 50-minute mark, when Sabyr reads a newspaper clipping announcing a Soviet-wide contest offering a private audience with Stalin in exchange for the best birthday gift for the Soviet leader. Title is echoed again at the movie’s climax, which reveals some shocking news about Russian scientific experiments being carried out in the region. However, even this revelation is dramatically undercut by a foreshadowing voiceover.
Helming by Rustem Abdrashev (aka Abdrashitov) is competent. However, helmer, previously known for the 2007 absurdist comedy “Patchwork Quilt,” never really shakes the impression that the story moves from episode to episode because it can’t really find a narrative center.
Young thesp Shintemirov looks strained carrying the central role but still manages an admirable contribution. Vet Ikhtimbayev is a strong screen presence, with considerable gravitas, while Rednikova charms as the earthy Vera.
Washed-out lensing fails to capitalize on the visual appeal of the Kazakh steppes. Music by Kuat Shildebayev is used sparingly, but is over-insistent when applied. Other credits are pro.