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Rare Locales, Too-Familiar Storytelling in The Gift to Stalin

From postwar Soviet purges to remote Kazakh landscapes, The Gift to Stalin depicts events and locales rarely seen on film—even as its storytelling methods are all too familiar. In 1949, on a westward train filled with political prisoners and ethnic undesirables, Jewish Sashka (Dalen Shintemirov) is separated from his Muscovite parents and headed for a grim fate before escaping on a gurney, piled with corpses, into rural Kazakhstan, where he’s smuggled to safety by a burly, one-eyed tracker named Kasym. Transposed to the wild, wind-swept steppes, Sashka encounters a makeshift community of exiles, which includes a doomed beauty, a bookish Pole, and a crew of desert-tough orphans. Rustem Abdrashev’s film is both epic and intimate in scope, attempting to capture the full sweep of the historical moment as well as a resilient lad’s coming of age. Such are the complex ambitions of most historical fictions, but with The Gift to Stalin, Abdrashev and screenwriter Pavel Finn struggle to find a complementary mix. If the story were consistently told from a child’s point of view, one could forgive the obfuscation surrounding Sashka’s deportation, but the film is actually intermittently narrated by an adult Sashka, whose briefly glimpsed pilgrimage to Jerusalem serves to both deepen and overwhelm the narrative. Alternating between impressive and pedestrian shot-making, professional and amateurish acting, the film aims for gravitas and entertainment but only occasionally achieves either.


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