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Review: The Death of Stalin

Popped over to IFC Center to catch a screening of The Death of Stalin, a razor sharp work of satire from Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep (which I have not yet seen, but it’s certainly on my list now).

This is dark comedy at its finest—so pitch black that you’ll find your own laughter utterly abhorrent. In the political chess game that is Soviet Russia, there are no heroes—just ruthless, ambitious, and hauntingly human monsters who joke around and fire off witty banter as they sign death warrants, all the while plotting to stab each other in the back at the earliest opportunity. The body count hovers somewhere in the thousands; at one point, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi at his bumbling, unassuming best) sacrifices the lives of 1,500 innocent civilians for the sole purpose of humiliating his chief rival. Iannucci wisely keeps much of this violence off screen in order to preserve the humor, but when the narrative takes a dramatic turn in the third act, he keeps his camera trained on the brutality, offering a cold, sobering look at the bloodshed that shaped the history of the world. Such significant tonal shifts aren’t always successful, but here, it’s a stroke of genius, perfectly fitting the film’s central theme (“…one can smile, and smile, and be a villain…”).

As a bonus, the feature presentation was preceded by Dogtor, a delightful animated short about sentient, talking canines struggling to be taken seriously in the workplace. The allegory is a bit obvious, but the story is just so darn adorable that I couldn’t possibly hold that against it.

[Originally written March 9, 2018.]

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