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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 30, 1988


Aleksandr Askoldov
Nonna Mordyukova
Not rated

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After 20 years of suppression, "Commissar" has been freed from the Siberia of Soviet film. It is an impressive first film, a classic constructivist work by Alexander Askoldov in which delicate gestures are set against a muscular structure. This so-called Zionist elegy has been shelved longer than any of the 140 other banned films. Sadly, its promising director has never made another.

Though the story takes place in a tinker's crowded cottage in 1922, the scale is as epic as the civil war outside. It expands to fit the hulking heroine, Red Army Commissar Klavdia Vavilova, a shovel-jawed monster with a heart harder than permafrost and the body of a linebacker. Despite it all, Klavdia has attracted the interest of a cavalry officer and become pregnant. Her belly swollen with his unwanted baby, she is forced to leave the front in the last weeks of her pregnancy.

Her superior officer appropriates the master bedroom of Yefim Magazanik, a poor Jewish handyman, and the dour Klavdia moves in. Yefim, his wife and many children are forced to crowd into the kitchen-dining-living room. But as the days go by, the Bolshevik dragoon is drawn into the family circle. Soon she is wearing a babushka.

The Magazaniks are an idealized Jewish family, headed by a Tevye-esque handyman who welcomes morning with a dance and a prayerful song. Such a simple, happy man! His adoring, earthy wife happily scrubs the clothes, cooks the daily ration of potatoes and bathes her adorable brood. It's a patronizing portrait, something of a Jewish "Cabin in the Sky." Yet in an almost casual counterpoint, the camera captures the younger Magazanik children playing pogrom. "Come on out. You have nothing to fear," they singsong to a shyer sister. Bloodthirsty as the boys from "The Lord of the Flies," they tie her up and terrorize her. "Even my own children," Yefim despairs.

There are also surreal scenes of the Holocaust, prescient dreams of the commissar, now Aunt Klavdia to the kids. These are considered the most controversial moments, for they accuse Mother Russia of complicity in the Holocaust. As Klavdia looks on, the family that has protected her selflessly is led off to die. Shaken by her nightmare and shamed by her cowardice, she awakes longing once again to prove her bravery in battle.

Askoldov bases his dense screenplay on a 1934 short story by Vasily Grossman, a Russian Jew whose writings also were censored. Though provocative and compassionate, this is a Russian movie after all, which means the pace is turgid as the "Volga Boatman's Song."

Commissar is not rated, but contains adult material. It is playing at the Key Theater in Russian with English subtitles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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