‘The Death of Stalin:’ A power vacuum full of comedy

This image released by IFC Films shows, from left, Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley and Simon Russell Beale in a scene from ‘The Death of Stalin.’ (AP Photo)
Updated 09 March 2018
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‘The Death of Stalin:’ A power vacuum full of comedy

Just as history enshrines its heroes, it aggrandizes its villains.
The most fearsome perpetrators of evil can become calcified in the horror of their atrocities. It becomes easy to imagine them as stern, foreboding figures who could have only earned their impunity through obsessive, bloodthirsty rigor.
But of course, as Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” illustrates, many of history’s monsters weren’t nearly as imposing as their reputations. They were idiots. They were vulgar, uncouth, hapless fools whose grip on power was as absurd as it was punishing. Their reigns were intensely cruel jokes.
In “The Death of Stalin,” Iannucci, having already thoroughly satirized modern-day Washington on “Veep,” travels back to 1953 Soviet Union and the days following Stalin’s collapse. That leap may seem greater than it is. Though the stakes are considerably higher in Stalinist Russia, the herd mentality of the power hungry to keep pace with political momentum is just as desperate. ‘Here, a wrong move won’t relegate you to morning television, but it will send you to Siberia, or worse. (OK, so the stakes aren’t that different.)
The frantic bumbling of hangers-on has been a specialty of Iannucci (“The Thick of It,” “Alan Partridge,” “In the Loop“), whose farces spin like particle-accelerating colliders, firing their paranoid, ever-strategizing characters off into ever-diminishing destinies.
Adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows from Fabien Nury and Theirry Robin’s graphic novel, “The Death of Stalin” may be both Iannucci’s darkest and most timely satire yet. More than anything he’s done before, Iannucci has narrowed the distance between slapstick and savagery, prompting us to contemplate — even as we’re cackling — their uncomfortable proximity.
The movie begins with a scene that captures the expansive fear of life under Stalin. An orchestra, having just played for a radio broadcast, receives a request from their dictator — he’s a fan — for a recording of the performance. Since none was made, the orchestra and all in the audience are forced to recreate the broadcast, working well in the night. Just as the record is rushed off, a pianist (played by Olga Kurylenko) slips a personal note for Stalin into the sleeve. It’s this message — fittingly a hidden missive of honesty hidden in art — that Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is reading when he keels over.
The news of the tyrant’s imminent death sets off a melee among the ministers of Stalin’s Politburo, who come running. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) arrives still dressed in his pajamas. The latest hastily scrambled list of names to be rounded up for the Gulag is recalled.
Most of “The Death of Stalin” captures, fairly realistically, the scheming and wrestling for power among Stalin’s cabinet — the motliest of crews. The race, at first, is to be the heir to Stalin’s policies and then, once the winds shift, to win the mantle of reformer, a feat requiring extreme political contortion. It’s a rich ensemble with varying accents, from Cockney to American, and uniform comic brilliance, including Michael Palin as Molotov, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov and Jason Isaacs as Zhukov.
But the primary drama is waged between Buscemi’s terrific Khrushchev and the exquisite Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, the secret police chief, who, when not ordering murders, dabbles in rape and pedophilia. That Beale creates such a character with even a hint of sympathy is a simply remarkably accomplishment.
There are hints and allusions throughout “The Death of Stalin” of the staggering horror just outside Kremlin walls. This is Iannucci’s first time working with real-life characters and it changes the trajectory and tone of the film. “The Death of Stalin,” which was banned from release in Russia, grows increasingly grim. The laughs dry up and painful truths settle in.
“The Death of Stalin,” an IFC Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout, violence and some sexual references.” Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.


Delhi’s last elephants await marching orders

Updated 21 September 2018
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Delhi’s last elephants await marching orders

  • Authorities have ordered the seizure of the elephants
  • Fifty years ago the Indian capital housed more than 200 elephants

NEW DELHI: The mighty Heera marched through a crowded slum chewing bamboo, oblivious that freedom from life as one of Delhi’s last six elephants at work in the polluted city could be just around the corner.
After years of pressure from activists who accuse the animals’ owners of flouting wildlife regulations by keeping them in a city, authorities have ordered the seizure of the elephants.
They plan to move the 40-year-old tusker — along with Dharamvati, Laxmi, Gangaram, Moti and Chandni — out of the smoggy Indian capital but warn it could take months to find a new home for them.
“They are kept away from their natural habitat,” a senior Forest Department official said, highlighting “reports of insufficient food, water, shelter and veterinary care, all which could expose them to disease.”
Fifty years ago the Indian capital housed more than 200 elephants, covered in garlands and carrying grooms to weddings, or being sought by the faithful for blessings at temples.
But now the city — overcome by cars, a population of 20 million and choking on pollution — is no longer a suitable home for the animals, with Heera and his five bedraggled companions the last elephants to live there.
Media reports say authorities are struggling to relocate the elephants because four are sick.
Officials hope to find a new home resembling the luxuriant farm belonging to consumer goods tycoon Vivek Chand Burman in Delhi where a seventh, female street elephant was recently taken.
She has her own mud pool and quarters complete with fans and sprinklers, a world away from her poorer relatives who wade in the Yamuna, one of the world’s most polluted rivers.

Animal Rights

But while animal rights campaigners welcome the move, it is a difficult moment for their owners — who deny any neglect.
Mehboob Ali likened it to snatching a legacy passed on by his ancestors.
“My family has been keeping elephants for six generations,” he said. “They are like our family and have been with us through thick and thin. We cannot live without each other.”
Heera’s keeper Mukesh Yadav has been looking after elephants since he was a child.
“I was so in love with elephants that I even decided not to marry. I felt that I must dedicate my life to the service of this holy animal,” he said.
The animals hold a special place in Indian culture, and elephant-headed Ganesha is one of Hinduism’s most revered gods.
Yadav bemoaned the loss of traditions that once allowed elephant keepers like him to work freely across the country.
“Earlier, people had a genuine fondness for these animals. A single village could have up to 20 elephants.
“We used to take a parade to graze in the fields and leave them to roam in the jungles. We would proudly present them at weddings and feasts. And now the government comes to us claiming that they are their property?” he said angrily.

Constant Inspections

Ali is infuriated by constant inspections of his elephants, which he believes are being done under pressure from activists.
He claimed that he has been harassed on several occasions by animal welfare groups.
“They are behaving as if we have stolen these elephants whereas they belong to us,” he said.
“Do you know that my great-grandfather was often given elephants as gifts by the maharajahs? And we have continued to trade them at animal fairs in various parts of the country.”
But activists counter that such claims mask a murky nexus of commercial exploitation, where little interest is paid to the animals’ welfare.
Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, said the elephants had spent most of their lives in deplorable conditions and must be taken back to the forests.
“If people are actually made aware of the brutal methods used to capture, tame and bring these elephants to the city, they would never want to see them here again,” he said.
“What would you choose, the joy of seeing an elephant rolling in the mud and walking the jungles, or seeing an abused and captive creature on the streets of Delhi outside a temple or a circus?“