Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 3.5
A ruler who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food.
Thus says the Lord God: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression,
and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord God.
Although I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about history, including dictator Joseph Stalin’s starving the peasants who resisted collectivization, I was not familiar with the term “Holodomor” until I saw director/writer George Mendeluk’s film. It is a term that we all should know as well as “The Holocaust,” because from three to seven million ethnic Ukrainians in the early 1930s were deliberately starved to death, the term meaning “death by hunger.” Although I feel indebted to the filmmaker for bringing this to light, especially today with the Ukraine so much in the news, I wish he had made a better film. As it is, it is a second rate Dr. Zhivago love story, set amidst sweeping social change and violent brutality that sometimes is difficult to follow.
The story begins near the end of World War One when news of the execution of the Czar and his family reaches a small Ukrainian village. Young Yuri (played as an adult by Max Irons) is a young boy aspiring to become an artist and, even at that early age deeply in love with his playmate Natalka (Samantha Barks). The lad is the grandson of the Cossack warrior Ivan (Terence Stamp) and son of Yaraslov (Barry Pepper), who are not fond of his goal of becoming an artist in Kiev. Their legacy to him is the resolve, “No one can ever take away your freedom. Remember that.” This, of course, is exactly what the EVIL Stalin (Gary Oliver) plans to do. In the scenes cutting away to him and his advisers in Moscow he all but twirls his bushy mustache. The Ukraine, regarded as the Breadbasket of the U.S.S.R, must be brought in line, so when Yuri’s family and their neighbors resist the dictator, Stalin’s orders are to collectivize, ship out grain, livestock, fruit and vegetables to Moscow, or else starve. When a shocked adviser observes, “This will mean the death of millions,” Stalin callously replies, “Who will know?”
Just as ruthless is the local Commisar Sergei (Tamer Hassen) who shows up, beats and bullies the landowners, the local priest, and anyone else who resists. The up and down love affair between Yuri and Natalka is over shadowed by the violence when the Ukrainians offer armed resistance to Sergie and his uniformed thugs.
One intriguing thread running through the story is a sacred icon of St. George slaying the dragon. This is an appropriate symbol of good versus evil. Whereas during this same period it is Hitler rising to power in Germany that has captured the attention of most of us, this film shows that a twin evil power was operating to the east, guilty of murdering just as many, if not more victims who stood in his way. Stalin is a good example of what some have warned is the danger of the uncompromising idealist, that in the name of an alleged good end, the idealist will sacrifice the lives of all who oppose his plans.
Despite its shortcomings as a film, much can be learned from it about still another dark period in history. Given what he did to Chechenya, who knows what President Putin might do to the present Ukraine were he to regain absolute power over its people!
This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP.