One Steppe Beyond

The Gift To StalinAfter seeing his grandfather die, Sashka is taken in by a war veteran.
It's been a good year for Kazakh film. Sergei Dvortsevoi's "Tulpan" was awarded a prize at this year's Cannes program and went on to wide acclaim at festivals around the world, while Guka Omarova's sophomore picture "Baksy" ("Native Dancer") was released to rather favorable reviews. Both contemporary dramas, they play on the cultural clashes between ancient rural traditions and the demands of modern, occasionally urban, life. Each features the stark beauty of the Kazakh steppe as a stunning backdrop, as well as colorful accents of surviving shamanism.

All these elements feature in Rustam Abdrashev's "The Gift to Stalin," though in a vastly different historical context: the closing years of the Stalin era, when in a remote Kazakh village traditional values and personal humanity are set against the cruelty of the effectively occupying regime.

The film begins around 1949, and the period is captured well. Ills wrought by the terrorizing government appear immediately with the arrival of a prisoner train at a far-flung station, where the dead are to be removed from prison carriages. Eight-year old Sashka (Dalen Shintemirov) witnesses his Jewish grandfather expire there before being hidden with the corpses and narrowly escaping death himself after being rescued by two local railway repairmen, who are forced to bury those who have not survived the gulag transport.

He's transported, literally and emotionally, into a new and protective environment. His prime protector is Kasym (Nurjuman Ikhtimbayev), a heavily scarred war veteran whose damaged face speaks more powerfully than any words he utters. All of "Gift," in fact, communicates more through silence and visual detail than through speech.

If their relationship becomes that of father-son, or more like grandfather-son, there is maternal care from another deportee, Vera (played powerfully by Yekaterina Rednikova), as well as the presence of an exiled Polish doctor whose relationship with the woman brings a tragic plot development near the end. To hide his identity, Sashka is effectively rebaptised as Sabyr and is cured of a lingering illness by a shaman. This apparently benign world is threatened only by surrounding Soviet power, in the form of a sadistic KGB major (Alexander Bashirov) and a corrupt Kazakh policeman, both of whom unabashedly use sexual violence to emphasize their control over others. Trouble also comes from a band of orphan children who live harsh lives and resort to crime to survive.

The film's title alludes to the fact that the year concerned marks the 70th birthday of Soviet leader Josef Stalin (although it seems to stretch history by a year on that front). Radio campaigns engage the nation's children to compete to present him with the greatest gift, and the event makes for a heart-breaking moment as Sabyr sacrifices the goat that is his only real possession in the hope that he may see his parents again. There's a chilling allusion to that theme developed subtly in early moments as well, when we see that the location borders Semipalatinsk, the site of the first Soviet nuclear weapon test Ч the gift perhaps prized most by Stalin.

Woven throughout the action in the Kazakh village is a retrospective narrative strand, in which an older Sashka-Sabyr appears in contemporary Jerusalem, where he has obviously found sanctuary after many years. Whether that weakens the essential drama of the story or gives it context is a moot point: It gives it an extra depth and perspective as well as appeal to an international audience.

In other hands Ч think Hollywood Ч a film like this might milk the potential sappiness of a drama that portrays victims of a totalitarian regime, presenting viewers with a kind of "Stalinism lite". But "Gift" doesn't hold back Ч the emotions are real, backed up by strong performances all around. The technical work is professionally done, though underplayed, with the striking steppe landscape almost speaking for itself. It's a landscape that both dwarfs the lives of its inhabitants and yet in no way diminishes the tenderness of their small dramas.

4 / 5