MOSCOW, JULY 17 -- If a film can define the mood of an era, "The Comissar," taken out of mothballs after 20 years and shown here today at the close of the Moscow Film Festival, may be the emblem of this country's ongoing cultural thaw. The picture captures all the wrenching aspects of glasnost: defiance, fear and bitterness about the Soviet past.
The story of the forced takeover of a Ukrainian town during the Russian Revolution, "The Comissar" depicts one of the darkest chapters of Soviet history in terms so candid they are stunning: Brutal Red Army aggressors clash with passionate local resistance in scene after scene.
The fact that it was shown here at all is a sign that glasnost is pervading the Soviet cinema. Made in 1967 by a largely unknown Soviet director, the film remained shelved even when other films, such as the massive anti-Stalin epic "Pokayanie," were released.
But the two-week biennial film festival here has given way to glasnost. For instance, one studio showed the complete works of Andrei Tarkovsky, the Soviet director who went into exile in the West in protest of censorship of his work.
Others exhibited Soviet documentaries about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and other subjects -- punk rockers and poverty, for example -- that were considered taboo as recently as a year ago.
When awards were announced here tonight, Soviet films turned out not to be the main winners, however. A jury headed by actor Robert De Niro chose Federico Fellini's "Interview" for the Grand Prix; Anthony Hopkins took acting honors for his performance in David Jones' "84 Charing Cross Road." Walt Disney's "The Journey of Natty Gann" won the gold prize in the children's category.
The official U.S. feature entry, Francis Ford Coppola's "Gardens of Stone," received a tepid response at its screening and was passed over by the jury.
De Niro is the first American to serve as chairman of a jury at the festival. His selection was described openly by Soviet officials as an effort to raise the prestige of the event, which had a reputation in the past for favoring Soviet or East bloc entries.
Although they took none of the top prizes, some Soviet films were honored this year. Director Karen Shakhnazarov shared a special prize for "Kurier," and "Chernobyl," a short documentary film about the 1986 nuclear disaster, took first place for short films.
But for the select audiences of Soviets and foreigners who saw it first last Saturday and again today, "The Comissar" seemed to be the favorite.
In a country where millions died of starvation and other causes during the first years of Soviet rule, the film was most overwhelming for the human touch it gave to those who resisted the Soviet Red Army.
The movie's protagonist is Klavda Vavilova, a young woman with a bullheaded commitment to stopping the army cold. When she sees the soldiers coming to take the town, she pulls her baby from her breast, pulls on boots, grabs her weapons and marches off to the front.
Vavilova falls from local power when the White Army loses its stronghold in the town. She is given shelter by a family of Jews whose nonchalant approach to her gradually turns to sympathy.
In a stark flash-forward, Vavilova imagines the enemy herding her along with Jews and others into a concentration camp. The camp -- depicted by dozens of emaciated prisoners standing in a dim courtyard -- is thought to be one of the first portrayals of Soviet camps allowed in the official cinema.
The portrayal of the Red Army's brutality is equally harsh. In one scene, three children get carried away imitating the enemy's tactics and end up ripping a young girl's dress, abusing and torturing her.
However, for all of its candor, the film was censored in places. Some sequences flow so badly they are incoherent. After the first showing here, scriptwriter and director Alexander Aksoldov told the audience that the showing had been "painful" for him, but he did not elaborate on what was cut. Still, film officials today said that "The Comissar" would be released to the public "in the near future."
Aksoldov made the film in 1967, as the last cultural thaw was coming to an end here. There was a flap, the picture was shelved, and he withdrew from making feature-length films, concentrating instead on documentaries.