|Directed by:||Aleksandr Askoldov||Rating:||TV-14|
|Release Date:||1967||Running Time:||104 mins.|
|Language:||Russian (English subtitles)||Genre:||Drama|
|More Info:||Wikipedia Entry; New York Times review||Category:||Feature Films|
Banned by the Soviet Government for twenty-one years, Commissar explores the complex loyalties of love and politics in a film The New York Times called “a brave, humane and powerful work…image after stunning image.”
“Having children is not so simple,” a mother tells the Commissar of Russia’s Red army, who has just found out she’s pregnant. “Not like war—bang bang, and there you are.”
After Madame Commissar Vavilova confides her embarrassing situation to her supervisor, a poor Jewish family with six children is forced to take her in. Over time, the severe commissar is softened by the family’s chaotic and loving home, and by the impending birth of her child. Through innovative cinematography and symbolic storytelling, Commissar demonstrates the prejudice Jews faced in antisemitic Russia and the sacrifices involved in every life decision.
When Vavilova takes refuge with a Jewish family, the father of the house, Yefim, is less than pleased to have the Commissar impose upon his family, but his kind-hearted wife is quick to offer her old slippers from under the bed, dote over Vavilova’s pregnant belly, and embrace her into her home. If they lived in a vacuum, perhaps the Commissar and the Jewish family could live out simple lives together, modestly, but happily. But once the Commissar’s child is born, the family’s honeymoon is over. Fear of pogroms permeates their town, and the Commissar must decide whether she wants to embrace her new role as a mother or return to being the military leader she’s always understood herself to be.
In its reflections on motherhood, Commissar offers a couched critique of “Mother Russia” and the Russian government’s flawed relationship with its citizens. “All disease comes from the stomach,” the Commissar utters drearily at one point. For her, pregnancy is an unwanted result of her actions, and her love for her child is tempered by neglect and frustration. Similarly, Russia could be seen as the neglectful mother who failed to consider her lower classes and, as a result, birthed a bloody revolution. Acting as the Commissar’s foil, the Jewish mother is full of warmth and nurturing that borders on self-deprivation. “You could go mad with it all,” she says, “but you can’t because you’re a mother.” She is the ideal caregiver who loves all of her children equally and is always prepared to meet their needs: perhaps she represents the kind of Russia for which the Red Army was fighting.
A film with art house appeal, Commissar is a visual poem, with a lyrical and minimalist approach to storytelling and stark, visually stunning cinematography. When the Commissar goes into labor the camera shows her sweating from the pain of contractions and then breaks momentarily with the narrative to show a metaphoric scene of soldiers pushing a broken carriage through the dessert. When the carriage finally goes over a hill and the exhausted men chase it down into a watery oasis, it’s clear the baby is born. Such use of visual metaphor makes the film much more interesting than a standard Hollywood flick, even of the same era.
Commissar takes a similar poetic approach in its conveyance of the rampant anti-Semitism Jews faced in the period, showing just how twisted the hate could become. In one particularly dark scene, two Russian boys bully a little Jewish girl, confronting her with wooden guns and threatening her with the “bang” of their fake bullets. But what starts out as a children’s game soon devolves into the mimicking of torturous acts. The disturbing scene undermines the presumed innocence of children, and blurs the line between adult and child-like behavior, asking to what extent antisemitic adults are acting out games they don’t fully understand.
Thought-provoking and visually mesmerizing, Commissar is a cinematic masterpiece as well as a document of a troubling history. The fact that it was banned for so many years only adds to its historical and artistic significance.