“The Death of Stalin,” a black comedy directed by Armando Iannucci (best known for TV’s “Veep”), is playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Based on a comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the film looks at what happens after Russia’s most notorious dictator dies in 1953. The heinous cast of characters who were Stalin’s henchmen in real life are portrayed as bumbling buffoons.
The story begins innocently enough with a performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” The audience has barely finished clapping when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls and says he enjoyed the music so much he wants a recording of it. But the performance was live. The concert hall manager orders musicians and audience back to their seats and tells the pianist, Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), to play again. A Stalin hater, she refuses, until bribed with 20,000 rubles. Then the conductor keels over. A new one arrives in pajamas, and the crisis is averted.
After a night carousing with his obsequious underlings, Stalin collapses with a cerebral hemorrhage. The surviving Central Committee characters are Nikita Khrushchev, Minister of Agriculture (Steve Buscemi); Lavrenti Beria, chief of Soviet Security (Simon Russell Beale); Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s General Secretary (Jeffrey Tambor); and Vyacheslav Molotov, Foreign Affairs Minister (Michael Palin) — all prominent English and American actors. One by one they arrive, and a debate begins over what to do next. If Stalin recovers, no one wants to be the one who declared him dead.
Once they struggle to heft him into bed, the next dilemma is to find the best doctor. They’ve all been executed or sent to the gulag, but a few of those remaining are rounded up. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) arrives, followed by his son Vasily (Rupert Friend), a drunkard who harangues the doctors with insults. Nonetheless, Stalin is finally declared dead, and the doctors open up his skull to remove his brain.
Beria, the most vicious of the crew, hurries to a safe, removes its papers and burns all of them except a batch with information on the others, which he tosses out the window to a soldier. Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) arrives with a chest full of medals. Next comes a meeting of the Central Committee. They decide to close off the city and station the NKVD (Soviet Security) at key points. Khrushchev is assigned to make the funeral arrangements.
The director sets up all of these scenes and the ones that follow as exercises in the ridiculous. The actors speak in their natural accents, British or American, adding to the comic chaos. Iannucci ends the film with the outcomes for each of the Central Committee members.
‘The Other Side of Hope’
Thursday, April 5, is the final night for “The Other Side of Hope” by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. The story follows the efforts in Helsinki of a poker-playing restaurant owner to aid a Syrian refugee, whose attempt to seek asylum is rejected. His sister Miriam, who also seeks asylum, is sent back to Aleppo.
Information and tickets for these and other Film Center films are available at mvfilmsociety.com.