Beware the blurb on the video cover of The Inner Circle: "A powerful and epic love story in the tradition of Doctor Zhivago!"
This true account of the man employed by the Kremlin as Josef Stalin's personal movie projectionist is certainly powerful, but it is anything but romantic or uplifting. Indeed, like many Andrei Konchalovsky films, it is profoundly unsettling.
Konchalovsky's main theme is the mass psychology of Stalinism in Russia from the 1930s to the '50s. He takes a completely opposite tack to the telemovie Stalin (1992) starring Robert Duvall. Instead of showing the leader as a monster and the people as oppressed victims, he offers us a hero, Ivan Sanshin (Tom Hulce), who is wildly enamoured of The Master (as he calls him), seeing him as a benevolent saviour.
The film delves fearlessly into the irrational passion underlying Ivan's – and a nation's – fervent ideological belief.
Outside the paranoid labyrinth of the Kremlin, we follow the course of Ivan's marriage to Anastasia (Lolita Davidovich). Once Ivan unflinchingly avows that he loves Stalin more than he loves her, the film plunges these characters into a horrendous erotic nightmare involving the sinister KGB chief Beria (Bob Hoskins).
As in Konchalovsky's Maria's Lovers (1984), the traumas of political history are seen to cause gross sexual dysfunctions in intimate life.
The Inner Circle is, in the most unrestrained and complex way, a melodrama. Whether Konchalovsky's characters are heading for salvation or damnation, they are driven, obsessed, unmoored.
The actors (especially Hulce) give performances that border on the grotesque – yet this is of a piece with the overall melodramatic style. Constantly alternating moments of crushingly dull alienation and frantic, desperate emotion, the film ensures that there is no neat reassurance or resolution for the viewer.
No wonder this fine, often brilliant movie escaped a proper cinema release in some countries.
© Adrian Martin September 1993