Toronto 2017: The Death of Stalin

“Fear rises like gas from a corpse in Armando Iannucci’s brilliant horror-satire The Death of Stalin,” begins the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “It’s a sulphurous black comedy about the backstairs Kremlin intrigue that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.” Five out of five stars.

“Short of insider knowledge, there’s no way Veep creator Armando Iannucci could have anticipated the appetite for Russploitation accompanying the meteoric rise (and/or fall) of America’s 45th president,” writes Steve Macfarlane for Cinema Scope. “Nevertheless, The Death of Stalin arrives at the intersection of mid-career Beckett and later-career Mamet, cocked and loaded for maximum chortling at all things Soviet—a Politburo burlesque disguised as stabbing political satire. Steve Buscemi stars as future Premier Nikita ‘Nicky’ Khrushchev, who, along with Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Molotov (Michael Palin, making a welcome big-screen return), navigates the perfect storm occasioned by Stalin’s unexpected death in 1953 to his maximum advantage.”

“Into this Veep-like turmoil come enjoyable complications,” writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. “Stalin's daughter and son arrive, in need of consolation. (Rupert Friend, as Vasily Stalin, gets to throw a very funny tantrum.) And while the bureaucrats bicker, a missile of testosterone cruises into Moscow: Red Army commander Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who had fallen out of Stalin's favor, is more than ready to help Khrushchev thwart Beria and his secret police. As talk turns to action, The Death of Stalin shifts from one kind of universal portrait to another: that of a coup planting the seeds of its own downfall.”

“I like Iannucci’s sense of humor and agree with his diagnosis of the world as refracted through politics, in which life is just a series of power struggles between people whose venality is in a photo-finish race with their stupidity,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “He’s done it again with The Death of Stalin . . . The main problem . . . is that In the Loop was anchored by Peter Capaldi, while here the main antihero is secret police head Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Even by the standards of Soviet politics, Beria wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs: he’s noted for his (somewhat disputed but probably true) mass rape of various terrified women, a fact which Beale and Iannucci lean into hard. It’s good that they didn’t soften this or try to play it for disreputable laughs, but that note of terror constantly sours the punchlines being gone for.”

“The novelty of his volcanically vulgar, deeply cynical tone may have worn off some, but Iannucci has nonetheless crafted another poisonous cocktail of naked ambition and blustery bravado with a decidedly bitter aftertaste,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson.

“Iannucci certainly deserves credit for even attempting to tackle a movie whose very existence sounds like a joke,” grants Variety’s Peter Debruge. “If only the end result were as funny as the idea that anyone would undertake a film about the turmoil surrounding the Soviet despot’s demise.”

“In more ways than one, this is vintage Iannucci,” finds IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “Though the rusty color palette and sweeping camera work indicate a more polished cinematic eye, it’s clear that the material belongs to Iannucci from the moment one character opens his mouth.”

Interviewing Iannucci are Brent Lang (Variety) and Joe Utichi (Deadline).

Update: “While Iannucci makes the most of mocking the hypocrisy of authoritarian states, where established rules are routinely broken by those who make them, his perspective on how power changes hands, resonates across a broader political spectrum,” writes the Playlist’s Kevin Jagernauth.

Updates, 9/11:The Death of Stalin just isn’t as funny as the writer/director’s previous projects,” finds Vikram Murthi at “At least some of that has to do with the lack of a truly dynamic lead performance . . . but it’s more that the film’s setting precludes many avenues for comedy, especially because of its commitment to realism. It’s tempting to imagine a more self-consciously cartoonish version of the film that would treat the Soviet Union with less severity, but if that were the case, it simply wouldn’t be an Iannucci film.

“Not since Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be has there been a movie satire as audacious as Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin,” declares Kevin Lally in Film Journal International.

Updates, 9/15: “Despite The Death of Stalin’s value as entertainment,” writes Richard Porton at the Daily Beast, “it’s valid to wonder what the point of lampooning long-dead Stalinists might actually be. Wouldn’t it perhaps have been more pertinent for Iannucci to have aimed his satirical fire at the gang of misfits currently holding power in the Trump administration? Yet, even if it’s possible to conclude that the movie is something of a thought experiment, an attempt to prove that even the most horrifying politicians can inspire rollicking satirical invective, there’s no denying that there’s little quaint about Iannucci’s project. In contemporary dictatorships such as the dismal regimes of Duterte in the Philippines or Erdogan in Turkey, the same sort of internecine quarrels that fueled political upheavals in the former Soviet Union are insidiously brewing.”

“Factual inconsistencies aside, The Death of Stalin’s premise is too simple to sustain itself with substantial questions about the nature of authoritarianism,” finds Kelley Dong in the Notebook.

“With officials and doctors wary of even a dead Stalin, the movie veers into slapstick territory at times, as Iannucci continually takes the spark of a true story and sets it on comic fire,” writes Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. “But it’s the ascension of Khrushchev over Beria that is the meat of the story, and sometimes this thread is lost in the busy and frantic world created as characters come in and out and time is given over to a deadly protest letter. In this dance, Iannucci also manages to squeeze in the brutal reality of Stalin’s rule, in what is a dense, delightfully playful encounter between history, laughter and deathbeds.”

Update, 9/16: “Though Iannucci specializes in insult comedy, that comes off surprisingly weak here,” finds Daniel Schindel at the Film Stage. “But The Death of Stalin makes up for it with some sharp physical antics. . . . This may be Iannucci’s weakest-written film, but it’s by far his best-directed one.”

Update, 9/19: “This is classic comedy gold,” writes the LA Weekly’s April Wolfe, “in many ways reminiscent of the old Monty Python show sketches skewering politicians, but with a slightly more serious spin; Palin as Molotov seems especially at home. The bonus is that the film looks good, too. This is some serious production design and costuming for a comedy. Stalin may be responsible for twenty million deaths, so it’s welcome that here he’s the butt of a million jokes.”

Update, 9/24: “The most delightful part comes from Jeffrey Tambor,” writes Bert Rebhandl for frieze, “best known from the TV show Transparent, where he played Maura Pfefferman, a father and husband who comes out as a woman after his kids have (more or less) grown up. The blurring of Maura and Malenkov, as it is inevitable for anybody who has ever seen Tambor in Transparent, echoes the blurring of Niki Krushchev and Nucky Thompson—the character Buscemi played in Boardwalk Empire, a gangster saga which also gives resonance to the cleaning out after Stalin.”

Updates, 10/22: “Iannucci and Soviet Russia: on paper, it’s a match made in heaven—both an opportunity to capitalize on anti-Russia sentiment and a chance to jab one of history’s most notorious autocrats in the ribs at a time when dictatorial, power-drunk figures are actually in power,” writes Simran Hans in the Observer. “A shame, then, that it doesn’t jab hard enough.”

Writing for the Guardian,Richard Overy argues that the film is “littered with historical errors, the result of trying to make a black comedy out of rather unpromising material. Some of the errors matter.”

On a bonus episode of the Film Comment Podcast (20’28”), Violet Lucca talks with Iannucci.

Update, 10/23: “Armando Iannucci just described me as being the opposite of an asshole,” laughs Steve Buscemi, talking to Emma Robertson at The Talks. “And I would say the same about him! I’ve worked with some directors where it’s just not as much fun, but you still do what you have to do. I think the more you trust your director, the more you’re willing to put yourself out there and take more risks and not be afraid. In The Death of Stalin, for example, it got a little intimidating playing a character who was a real person. I had to work on forgetting who he was in history and just trying to play his intentions as they seemed in the script. I don’t really think about emotions, it’s more about behavior and reactions and that really depends on the director and the writers and the other actors.”

Update, 10/24: José Arroyo and Michael Glass discuss the film on Eavesdropping at the Movies (26’21”).

Venice andToronto 2017 indexes. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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