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Survival and freedom: 'East-West' moving portrayal of struggles of postwar Russians

Friday, June 02, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

That Stalin was a monster is well known. How much of a monster boggles the mind anew with each tragic revelation, of which Regis Wargnier's "East-West" is a stunning, deeply moving example.


RATING: R for violence and adult political themes

STARRING: Oleg Menchikov, Sandrine Bonnaire, Catherine Deneuve

DIRECTOR: Regis Wargnier

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 1/2 stars


In 1946, the dictator issued an "invitation" to expatriate Russians in France, offering them amnesty, Soviet citizenship and an opportunity to participate in the postwar reconstruction of the USSR. Some 5,000-10,000 homesick idealists accepted, believing the Stalinist terror of the '30s was over and that a new era and movement toward democracy would truly welcome their humanizing influence on communism.

Dr. Alexei Golovine (Oleg Menchikov), his French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their young son are as naive as the rest of their companions -- and as horrified, upon disembarking in Odessa, to discover a terrible trap: In Stalin's paranoid assumption that the returning "white" Russians are spies, some are executed on the spot, most are sent directly to forced-labor camps in the gulag, and few will ever be heard from again.

Golovine escapes that fate only because his medical skills are needed and the commissars hope to parade him as a "model" returnee for propaganda purposes. He is assigned to work in a textile-factory infirmary in Kiev, where his family is allocated one room in a kommunalka, a communal apartment whose claustrophobic din is shared by a dozen others. In that goldfish bowl, Alexei conforms while Marie longs for freedom, and they grow apart under the burden of daily betrayal that passes for Soviet life. No evidence of espionage is necessary -- just an anonymous denunciation -- to set the KGB's casual brutality into motion: The Golovines' kindly old babushka-landlady is carted off in the night for the crime of speaking French with Marie.

Increasingly desperate to escape, Marie makes dangerous contact with the leading lady (Catherine Deneuve) of a visiting theater company from Paris, begging that French officials be alerted to her plight. But she complicates her own cause by falling in love with teen-age Sacha (Serguei Bodrov Jr.), a champion swimmer whom she helps prepare for the European championship in Vienna where he, too, can escape to freedom.

Plot and subplot now merge in this tyrannical society: When one flight plan is thwarted, another must be invented. When one person escapes, another must pay the price.

The film's rich tapestry -- beautifully photographed in shades of burnished brown, in Bulgaria -- would mean little if not inhabited by the superb performances of Menchikov and Bonnaire. The former is Russia's answer to Jean-Louis Trintignant; the latter is her generation's Jeanne Moreau, while Catherine Deneuve in her key supporting role is no less stunning in maturity than in youth. Most admirable is the realistic ambiguity of the characters -- their shades of gray rather than black or white -- and a refusal to demonize all Soviet officials represented in the story. Especially fine in that regard is legendary Ukrainian actor Bogdan Stupa as leader of a Red Army Choir whose powerfully masculine music provides the film's superb soundtrack.

Director Wargnier ("Indochine") has given us a kind of "Reds" in reverse, with half-French, half-Russian dialogue (and English subtitles) in a screenplay that is both romantic and unromantic, dramatic and melodramatic, but finally escapes soap opera thanks to a significant instead of sentimental context.

In the end, "East-West" is about moving not just from one world to another but from one person to another and, perhaps most important, from one thought (survival) to a better one (freedom). Though episodic and very badly edited in spots, it is impeccably acted, mesmeric and wrenchingly beautiful.

It comes to us from the need to reveal -- if never repair -- an abomination.

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