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MOVIE REVIEW: Political satire ‘Death of Stalin’ brings the laughs

March 22, 2018 GMT

Death of Stalin

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

Looking for a black comedic political satire of the Soviet Union? Well, you’ve found it in “Death of Stalin.”

As the title implies, the movie is centered around Joseph Stalin’s death. After ruling over the Soviet Union for 33 years, Stalin has a stroke in 1953. This event causes in-fighting among his subordinates for succession before a successor can be named. The scramble for power proves to be a no-holds-barred event where grown men will stop at nothing to get what they want.

The star-studded cast brings a lot of talent to the table. Just to name a few, American talents Steve Buscemi (“Lean on Pete,” “Boardwalk Empire”) plays Minister of Agriculture Nikita Khrushchev and Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development,” “Transparent”) plays Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov. British actors Simon Russell Beale (“Penny Deadful,” “Into the Woods”) stars as First Deputy Premier Beria and Michael Palin (“Vanity Fair,” Monty Python) plays Molotov.

Director Armando Iannucci knows comedy. Iannucci created and helmed the first four seasons of HBO’s award-winning comedy “Veep.” He takes that comedic timing and applies it here to the Soviet Union.

“All the characters are brutal and thuggish, but you warm to some even while loathing others,” Iannucci said. “So I wanted the audience to be reminded that these characters’ actions and decisions had devastating consequences for the people. I knew we had to be enormously respectful of the fact that millions were killed or disappeared and that’s not something you can shirk or explain in a joke; you have to deliberately recognize that at all stages in the film.”

While the topic may not be in the first that comes to mind when you think the height of comedy, Iannucci is able to balance comedic elements with the stark reality of what was happening during Stalin’s rule.

“What’s so brilliant about the film is that’s it’s very funny but then suddenly, like a bucket of ice cold water down your neck, something totally mundane will happen like ‘Put him on the list, and his wife, and shoot him first so she sees it’; it’s so utterly chilling,” said Dermot Crowley, who plays Lazar Kaganovich, first deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. “That phrase ‘The banality of evil’ is so true in terms of what happened, so to put that within a comic context makes it that much more frightening.”

The movie was inspired by the graphic novels “The Death of Stalin” and its sequel “Volume 2 — The Funeral” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. French producers Yann Zenou and Laurent Zeitoun bought the rights to the novels and then approached Iannucci to be the director.

“When we discovered Fabien Nury’s comics in 2013, we were struck by the originality of the story and its potential to make a unique film,” Zenou said. “A question immediately arose: who would be able to direct such a film? Succeeding in making a comedy based on one of the darkest periods and characters in our history? Just one name came to mind: Armando Iannucci.”

The movie hasn’t had the best reaction in Russia. The movie has been denounced as sacrilegious and pulled from theaters. Lawyers from Russia’s Ministry of Culture said it should be banned because of “extremism” and its unfavorable portrayal of historical figures. Even before the release, shooting was an issue.

“For obvious reasons, we couldn’t shoot the entire film in Russia, so we decided to recreate a Russia of the ’50s in London,” Zeitoun said. “It was a real challenge, but one that all our teams won hands down. We were surprised to find ‘Russian’ backgrounds at times even in central London.”

Bringing the laughs, though with occasional slowdowns, “Death of Stalin” may not be for everyone but those looking for a smart, dark comedy will be right at home.

(IFC Films)