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Red Army commissar Klavdia Vavilova (Nonna Mordyukova) is forced to abandon her soldiers because of a child growing in her womb. She settles down under the roof of a Jewish tailor (Yefim, Rolan Bykov) where there is hardly enough room to breathe let alone deliver a baby.
The family quickly puts on the table everything they've got: potatoes, bread, tea, and sugar. They even offer Klavdia a pair of worn-out slippers. When she finally delivers everyone congratulates the mother. Proud and excited Klavdia takes her son to a nearby church where he is baptized.
Soon, Klavdia's men are back announcing that the Whites have gained momentum. The locals begin to fortify their homes expecting the worst. Klavdia abandons her son but not before she reveals to him who his father is.
Banned for over twenty years Komissar a.k.a Commissar (1967) is director Aleksandr Askoldov's one and only film. Partially restored by Mosfilm in the early 90s and eventually introduced to a select group of state appointed censors at the peak of the Soviet perestroika Komissar is also a film with an enormously complex narrative. From the nerve-wrecking soundtrack by Alfred Schnitke to the heavy symbolism mixing religion with Soviet idealism Askoldov's picture is as fascinating to watch as it is thought-provoking.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Komissar, the one that forced Soviet state regulators to reconsider its fate, has to do with the uncharacteristic employment of religion. Highly unusual for Soviet cinema at the time subtle criticism is detectable through Klavdia's actions. The strong, with the physique of a man, woman (a reoccurring symbol of Soviet power in many state-produced projects) quickly evolves into a volatile and second-guessing soldier. From the moment Askoldov enters with his camera the Jewish family where Klavdia will rest to the scene where she leaves to have her child baptized Komissar manages to dispel an array of myths the Soviet state tirelessly promoted: from the voluntary support for the Reds to the unhealthy for the proletariat role of religion.
It is the honest look at communist exploitation however that truly surprises here. Shot during the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution Komissar delivers a strange message where the masses are neither willing nor ready to sacrifice lives and families; instead they accept what the powers to be demand. It is strange to say the least that a Soviet director managed to remain so focused with his camera at a time when his country was politically unconscious.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's this KINO produced disc appears as an exact replica of the Ruscico version of Komissar. As you could probably guess this is indeed a PAL-NTSC port with the mandatory for such transfers "ghosting". This put aside however the print is in remarkably healthy condition as it is obvious that a thorough restoration has been performed and a number of debris have been removed. Contrast is at exceptionally high level as is detail. Edge-enhancement was not something I was bothered by and to be honest if not for the improper conversion this would indeed be one marvelously produced disc. What a missed opportunity!! (You could set up the menu system in Russian, French, or English).
How Does the DVD Sound?
There are a number of audio tracks here, some quite puzzling, yet only one captured my attention. I listened to the Russian mono track which apparently has been restored and indeed the its quality was very good. I did not detect any disturbing hissing or dropouts. There are also Russian DTS, 5.1, and English and French voice-over 5.1 tracks. I played with each one of them and frankly none serve the film well. The dubs are hilarious and at times quite annoying as the Russian narrator speaks with a heavy accent and the emotion he offers is simply inadequate. The DTS track hardly even matches the film's aura. With optional Russian, English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian subs.
All of the extras appear on disc 2. First there is a large section of interviews titled simply " Askoldov" where the director talks about his past, how the film came to be, and how the Stalinist regime affected his family. Those willing to learn more about Komissar's history should most definitely listen to the interview as contrary to what many reviews indicate the film isn't about the role of religion (precisely the presence of the Jewish family) but rather Askoldov's personal journey to freedom. In this section there are also three archival interviews from Russian TV that further investigate the director's persona. There is also a Biography, Documents, and Letters section.
Next, there is a second interview with actress Raisa Nedashkovskaya in which she recalls her involvement with the director (apparently she is a good singer), a film press announcement, three video stills galleries, Cast/Crew filmographies, and a short biography of Vasil Grossman. Finally, there is a third interview, an excellent one, with Rolan Bykov (Yefilm) where the actor recalls his first meeting with Askoldov who at the time was a member of the Soviet Ministry of Culture. Bykov kindly points out that Askoldov was the first Soviet high-ranking official to talk about Michail Bulgakov and of course consequently he discusses his participation in Komissar.
I am surprised to see that Komissar is being so lavishly promoted as a "trenchant examination of Soviet anti-Semitism". While Askoldov's film chronicles an era when religious prosecution was indeed justified by a cruel regime its message hardly fits the one-sided description above. In fact, Askoldov himself addresses the controversy surrounding Komissar (I strongly recommend that you listen to his interview as it is enormously revealing) and why the film suffered the fate it did. It is ironic that some are selling it for what it isn't.