By Christopher Bell | The Playlist March 18, 2011 at 2:06AM
1949: A cargo train pulls into an unspecified area, and immediately children accost it with pans full of hot water. They run around like little merchants with a fresh mouth: "Buy hot water! Don't be stingy!" they tell the soldiers who dip out of the sliding doors, dying for anything wet. The scene shifts into one of the compartments; a boy (Sashka, Dalen Schintemirov) delivers water to his grandfather who dies before he can get a drop on his tongue. It's just one casualty of many, though, and the soldiers -- members of the Soviet Union -- stop off in a Kazakhstan village to unload the waste. Kasym (Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev), a road worker, proceeds to bury the dead when he discovers Sashka hidden amongst them. Without the heart to leave the kid to his own devices, he takes him back to a small community of political prisoners. Eventually Sashka -- whose parents are also political prisoners -- gets wind of a contest for children: whoever gives Stalin the best present will get to meet him. He, of course, devises a pipe-dream plan to give the Generalissimus the greatest gift of all in order to free his parents.
Oh. "The Gift To Stalin" is going to be one of those movies.
Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with sentimental flicks. Not every movie is out to experiment with the medium or expose the ugliness of life. Some want only to tell a moving story by any means necessary, with a fulfilling ending in place to wrap everything with a bow. Bitch all you want, but there's a market for it, and we'll admit that there are some that hit all the right notes in a way that isn't completely shallow and uninspired. However, these are especially rare, and most will chug along to a maudlin conclusion by any means necessary with a very impersonal aftertaste. "The Gift To Stalin," while a tad more harmless than that, mostly falls into that camp.
As the story progresses, the director introduces us to the other characters, specifically members of Sashka's new family (such as the Russian Verka or Yezhi the Pole) or overly villainous individuals like local police man Balgabai (who rapes Verka) or a Soviet Major (who also rapes Verka). None of these characters -- especially the antagonists -- ever rise above their molds, lacking distinct personalities that would set them apart from the archetypes they play. This wouldn't be so grave if they were delegated to background roles, but director Rustem Abdrashev doesn't seem to think that they're dull -- nearly every character is given equal screen time, all with their own plots that we must follow through to the end.
It feels too calculated, which is why the movie truly shines when focusing on Sashka and Kasym. Their relationship isn't revelatory or new, per se, but there's a sense of liberation in their sequences that gives off a semblance of life. Eventually the boy finds a band of trouble making orphans to roll with (later giving them the idea to sell water to the incoming cargo trains, harkening back to the opening scene), but his new parent-figure does what he can to keep him away from the little hooligans. Many of their moments together are very simple, involving a slow, majestic tour of the steppe and precious grandfather/grandson conversations. It's a wonder why the filmmaker felt the need to pull away from these more absorbing junctures.
Indeed, the scope is too grand, and some of it has little bearing on anything or is too hollow. The Verka+Yekhi story-arc is typical movie-romance, with some disturbing shock value thrown in for good measure. Officer Balgabai is a regular customer around their parts, consistently seeing Verka and screwing her simply because he has the power to do so. Yekhi, who has genuine feelings for her, can do nothing but watch her be degraded from afar. Near the closing of the film (and somewhat randomly), the two marry, and an enjoyable celebration proceeds. But because of the length, its ultimate spot in the general plot, and the overall predictable nature of the film's handling, something is very suspicious about the new lighthearted tone -- it almost seems like director Abdrashitov Rustem has constructed the entire wedding just to have something terribly unfortunate happen. There were cute points before, but there was always some artificial hand swooping in to prevent too much positivity (after all, audiences must cry). Predictably so, the evil officer returns and, without spoiling too much, something very drastic happens. Which leads to drastic repercussions, and that leads to another drastic event by a too-mature nine year old. This culminates in a random explosion, and with a finale sporting a "30 Years Later" bit that screams too loud to be moving.
It's simply too much, and Rustem doesn't hit the usual buttons with any sort of finesse to cause genuine emotion. Inspired by true stories of people displaced by the Soviet Union to Kazakhstan, of course his heart is in the right place, but the quality is so lopsided with this one that no amount of goodwill can help. It's too all-over-the-place, despite the occasional genuine moments and the impeccable art design. "The Gift to Stalin" could've benefitted from a more incomplex approach, something that would've actually hit the notes the filmmaker had aimed for. Unfortunately, he needed to try it all. Little of it succeeds, which can be rather draining at times, and not in the way he intended it to be. [C]