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The Inner Circle Reviews

In Andrei Konchalovsky's THE INNER CIRCLE a naive comrade discovers the personal cost of his beliefs when he becomes the movie projectionist for Stalin and his paladins. Despite the luxury of using actual Russian locations and performers, the film is heavy-handed in its symbolism, facile in its explanations and sentimental in its characterizations. In the opening scene, a vintage Soviet newsreel depicts the construction of statues, male and female, peasant and worker, brandishing the twined symbols of their classes, the hammer and sickle. The voice extolling this bit of politicized optimism belongs to Ivan Sanshin (Tom Hulce), the projectionist who's showing the film to a huge auditorium full of security police and cadets. Discussing the reasons for his personal happiness--his impending marriage to Anastasia (Lolita Davidovich); his work and his room in a communal apartment within Moscow's tram line system--Ivan and a pal share a bottle of vodka in the projection room. As a result, he doesn't notice the newsreel jamming and the projected image of Stalin starting to burn on screen before the stunned audience. When the four a.m. knock comes at his apartment door, Ivan fears for himself, but the Chekists have come for his neighbor, Aaron Gubleman (Aleksandr Lipkov). Gubleman is a suitable victim of a purge, particularly in 1939: he's a Red Army officer, a Jew and has recently returned from diplomatic work in Germany. Barely recovered from the shock, Ivan himself is summoned later that night, but is relieved to recognize the gates of the Kremlin looming, rather then those of the Lubyanka. Through ornate halls rimmed by smartly uniformed young security troopers in their telltale blue caps, Ivan is escorted to a projection booth. After demonstrating his skill to an skeptical General Rumiantsev (Vsevolod Larionov), Ivan nearly collapses when he is told that his audience includes the "Master" himself, Comrade Stalin (Alexandre Zbruev). Ivan is hired at a higher rate of pay than he had received, and there are also extras like access to fancy foods and a position with the security service. The drawbacks are that he can't disclose his job to anyone, that he can be called into service at all hours and that he has to endure the feverish concern with intrigues and plots personified by a Colonel Schelkasov (Vladimir Khulishov), who, with his glasses and blond toothbrush moustache, looks a bit like Himmler. Ivan's personal costs mount as Anastasia's hope of adopting the orphaned Katya Gubleman are crushed by his own fear and Schelkasov's demands that he turn someone in as a traitor. He is also learning of the subtle personal domination of Stalin who metes out good-humored jokes and outright insults alternately among his circle. Despite his naivete, Ivan does sense the precariousness of his situation and watches as one of the security officers dances for joy when he realizes that they have survived to see another morning in Stalin's service. In the communal apartment, Ivan and Anastasia hold private conversations inside their clothes cabinet to avoid a particularly unpleasant neighbor who gloats over their fear. The German invasion of Russia provokes a crisis both among the Soviet leaders and in Ivan's marriage, as he and Anastasia clamber aboard a train taking the government to safety in Kubyishev. Ivan frets alone when his wife, a maid in the Kremlin service, is summoned to serve security minister Beria (Bob Hoskins), who plies her with alcohol before his seduction. Having changed his mind, Stalin returns to Moscow, with Ivan in tow, while Anastasia remains behind with Beria and his lieutenants. Returning to a bombed and shelled Moscow, Ivan salvages a gilt bust of Stalin from his old high school and settles down to share a bottle of vodka with Professor Bartnev (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), a neighbor. In a far too fast transition, Anastasia, in modish clothing, too much makeup and pregnant, returns a year later, but she has grown tragically wise to the ways of the Soviet leaders. Lamenting her fate and the probable life of little Katya, Anastasia hangs herself. In a dream sequence, Ivan meets Stalin passing alone by his house and is upbraided by the "Master" for trying to appear happy and untroubled. With the war's end and Stalin's victory, Ivan is now a captain in the security service and lives unbothered by anyone, until the adolescent Katya (Bess Meyer) arrives for a visit. His efforts to help her with warm clothes and money are shrugged off by a girl wise to the ways of Soviet life. They meet again in Moscow's crowded streets when Ivan has been mobilized to stem the mobs attempting to catch a glimpse of Stalin's corpse in March 1953. As people fall beneath the crowd and are crushed, Ivan spots Katya and promises to protect her, and they both lament their common fate. From time to time, the street outside Ivan and Anastasia's windows is crowded with cattle bound for slaughter, a clear symbol of the fate of the Russian masses during the years of terror and purge. There are also several closeups of soldiers' boots, striding along Kremlin corridors or in ceremonial goosestep outside Lenin's tomb. It is uncertain whether this is supposed to be a hint of red fascism, a comment on Russian military styles or a symbolic funeral march. When a slightly drunk Anastasia begins to speak of Stalin's deformed hand, Professor Bartnev can only cite the Evil One as the source of Russian unhappiness. A more sophisticated view would have been desirable since Bartnev, seen in a book-lined room, is the only character in a position to add perspective. Perhaps THE INNER CIRCLE's greatest flaw is the emphasis on a three-year-old Katya Gubleman, subjected to the rigors of an orphanage to arouse pity. Compared to this element, the occasional historical lapses (the KGB did not exist in 1939-45, but had the title NKV, and the word for Stalin most often used was Vozd, meaning "boss" or "chief") are minor flaws. The story of Stalin's Russia has been told much better in a wide array of novels from former communists like Victor Serge, Slavic nationalists like Solzhenitsyn, and reporters like Godfrey Blunden, Robert Littell and James Jackson. (Profanity, adult situations.)