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Monday, May 22, 2017

Within the Whirlwind

 It is one of those films that keep on turning through your mind long after the credits are over.

Based on a memoir smuggled out of Russia during the starkly terrible Stalin era, it is the epic true story of Evgenia Ginzburg, a poet and literature professor who was sentenced to ten years in a gulag in Siberia.  A grim, grim tale, it is brought vividly to life, first by the superb cinematography and stunning scenery, and secondly by an amazing performance from Emily Watson, who is onscreen throughout.

The first half hour or so depicts a warm impression of Ginzburg's life before events seized her -- we see her in an affectionate relationship with her husband (who was, in fact, the mayor of the town where they lived, though this is not shown in the film), a loving mother who tells lively bedtime tales of "Mr. Whiskers," an evil mouse, to her two little boys, and a strict but inspiring teacher in class.  Interestingly, while the film is in English, the lessons she writes on the board are in flowing Cyrillic, and yet the message is perfectly clear, such as the importance of the placement of a comma in a sentence recommending someone's execution.

Arrested for disloyalty to the Party, she is thrown into solitary confinement in a ghastly Moscow prison, where she keeps sane by reciting poetry while waiting for a sentence of death.  Finally, she is hauled up before a bench of officials -- who take exactly six minutes to decide on her guilt and set her on her path to Siberia.

Filmed in a detention camp that has been kept as a memorial in Poland, the rest is chillingly convincing.  This, as New York critic Nora Lee Mandel points out, " is one of the few films about women political prisoners in totalitarian states and the special bonds they share and brutalities they face, particularly rapes."  Though increasingly gaunt and haunted (this is amazing acting from Emily Watson), Ginzburg keeps up her spirits and those around her by arguing with stolidly stupid guards by day, and telling stories at night.

Then, however, her spirit is broken.  A stolid camp officer reads out a letter from her mother.  Her husband, arrested, has committed suicide.  Worse still, one of her sons has starved to death in the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  Abject with grief, she wants to die, but, miraculously,  is saved by a budding romance with the camp doctor, a man who was arrested and sentenced because he was German.  This might seem syrupy and Hollywoodish, but not only is it very well portrayed, but it is nothing more or less than the truth.

Incredibly, this marvelous film has never been picked up for general release.  The only times it has been publicly screened is at film festivals.  Blame very, very bad timing.  As Emily Watson remarked, "It was delivered pretty much the same day as the market crashed so nobody was buying anything."

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