(30/05/07)The Commissar is one of the great films in the history of cinema as well as the victim of one of the greatest injustices against a piece of art. Banned by Russian authorities for 20 years because of its sympathetic view of women and Jews, when it was finally screened at the Berlin festival in 1988 it deservedly won the Silver Bear and was met with international acclaim.

But for director Alexander Askoldov, 1988 must have been too late. The director, as we hear actress Nonna Mordyukova say in one of the several extras included on this welcome DVD release by Artificial Eye, mostly footage of interviews on Russian television, lost heart after all the legal persecution he had to face and never made another film. And considering the talent that shines through this film, this was an unfortunate case of an aborted career that potentially could have produced several other masterpieces like this one.

Set in 1920 during the Russian Civil War, the film follows the story of Klavdia Vavilova (Mordyukova), a female Commissar from the Red Army who finds herself heavily pregnant in the middle of battle and seeks imposed refuge with a poor Jewish family. The patriarch of the family, the wonderfully spirited and clownish Yefim Mahazannik (played by the great actor Rolan Bykov) is initially hostile to the arrival of the commissar but his wife Maria (Raisa Nedashkovskaya), who is female comradeship incarnate, accepts the new situation promptly and welcomes the mother-to-be warm-heartedly. Besides the couple, there are several (noisy) kids and a grandmother in the house as well.

Askoldov uses this relatively simple set-up to create a touching and convincing homage to motherhood and women as symbols of civilization and life in opposition to male bloodthirstiness and warring. Maria at one point compares the hard task of bringing up children with the easier one of making war. In another symbolic scene, Yefim washes Maria’s feet.

The arrival of a child into Klavdia’s life is a revelation, a taste of real life outside the death-haunted existence she leads as a comissar. But, of course, she’s doomed. There was no space for maternal feelings in the world of the Red Army and she is aware she will have to make a painful choice, both on account of her being a mother and being sheltered by a Jewish family.

Askolvov’s cinematic vision is never less than stunning, scene after scene. His clean, poetic mise-en-scene and imaginative use of montage result in truly memorable moments. The sequence when Klavdia gives birth, juxtaposed with war scenes and a flashback to the moment of conception, is dazzlingly lyrical. It has to be one of the most beautiful metaphors of motherhood ever committed to celluloid.

In the interview with Bykov included as an extra, the actor says that The Commissar ‘combines a lofty spirituality with a clear truth". This is a very accurate description of the film. The truth pursued by Askoldov is uttered clearly and enhanced with poetry and an attentive eye to all things and beings surrounding the characters. The Commissar is a universal film whose thesis was as relevant then as it is now. Unforgettable.

The Commissar is out now. Please follow links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.