The Death of Stalin Armando Iannucci(UK 2017)Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey ,Tambor, Simon Beale.
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 25 Oct 2017; ticket £9.75
No truth content.
The Death of Stalin is a stylistic farrago.Iannucci has directed and scripted a hotch potch of a movie that amounts to far less than the sum of its stylistic flounces. The skeletal scaffold upon which the Death of Stalin is structured is a transposed ‘brit style’ loveable but vicious Cockney gangsta movie, tricked out with Monte Python inlays (there is an effective John Cleese like cameo from Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin) and ‘West Wing’ designed look.Ianucci heads out for the sea of laffs but ends up in the quicksands of failed ambitions. In the end in pursuit of distraction he misses all the targets.
Iannucci’s one cheap decision was to go for Lock Sock (sic) and two Smoking barrels/ Kray brothers type scripting. Using this as his template creates an immediate problems of how the film is grounded. It necessitates clumsy subtitles to makes sure the audience realises that Moscow, and not the East End of London is the film’s setting. But despite all Iannucci’s flailing, despite the use of captions to explain what is happening, the film still seems grounded its loveable but naughty East End ethos.The transposing of the material and jokes from London to Moscow, makes much of the humour overlaboured in delivery, overreliant on mere crudity of language to produce a few guffaws from the cinema audience.
The transposing of setting also causes a problem with the Death of Stalin’s truth content.The confusion caused by its template of stylisation causes a detachment from context.The film ceases to be a film about the Soviet Union, a particular situation at a particular time, it just becomes a generic‘baddies’ vehicle that happens to have a Cockney feel. The loss of specificity
is paid for in that as the humour’s target becomes more generalised, so the more attenuated it becomes. It loses edge as any stand-up comedian can tell you.
Iannucci’s decision is cheap because the alternative would have been much more difficult and time consuming.To develop for the Stalin project a more definitively Soviet/Russian voice.Of course one of the folk glories of the Soviet Union was the black underground humour.This humour pervaded the whole of the Iron Curtain with its mordant embrace of the terror of reality of life under a totalitarian regime.There is something of this in the scenes that dominate the opening section of the movie, the duplication of the classical concert in order to make a recording demanded by Stalin.This section of the scripting gives a glimpse of what the Death of Stalin might have been, an idea grounded in the parallel flow of alternating divergent realties characterising Soviet life.But Iannucci sells out for a ride on the cushion of easy laughs, stylistic switches into Monte Python and West Wing conspiracy territories.
SO my final thoughts were that Iannucci makes a transposed gangsta movie transposed 65 years back in time into forgotten back water of Soviet Union. The events are safely outside the grasp of living memory, event now relegated to the (admitttedly interesting but specialised) pages history.But now, 65 years later, another group of gangstas occupy the Kremlin control all the strings of Party and State.Putin through his security apparatus the FSB and the crony capitalist oligarchs rules Russia permitting no opposition. He imprisons rivals and those who annoy him, murders journalists and controls the Church and Army.Why bother to make a movie about Stalin? Except as a dead man he’s a safe subject.Surely to make a film about Stalin without even obliquely referencing the current situation in Russia is an action of little consequence.The Death of Stalin is not even an allegory; rather it’s a betrayal of truth.