CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION *** 1/4 (Australia, 1996)
In COTR she plays (and I mean plays, as she is a unique performer rather than just a star), over a span of four decades, an Australian woman called Joan. She has no private life but is a dedicated believer in Communism, in the Revolution and in Stalin, once the Uncle Joe of so many people around the globe. She has painstakingly learned to write Russian in order to keep writing letters to the Soviet dictator.
The missives are unanswered, but one day, as they are being read by Kremlin apparatchiks, all those flunkies-in-uniform are touched to tears. Like other scenes, there is broad humor here, a la Mel Brooks. The result is that Stalin learns about Joan and invites her to Moscow.
The man is played (also broadly and amusingly) by F. Murray Abraham as an aging, horny goat, doubly irascible because he is trying to stop smoking -- another clever touch for those who remember Stalin's eternal pipe.
In Australia, Joan has always looked frumpy, with the kind of bad hair day that extends to years -- a touch that is true of a certain type. In the USSR she looks gorgeous in sexy red, from dress to accessories, but the hair remains the same, like Joan's fanatical beliefs. Stalin is aroused. Stalin makes passes. Stalin has congress with virginal Joan during the night of March 4 to 5, 1953. Uncle Joe dies.
In Australia, Joan had met Nine (a name that parodies James Bond's 007) an investigating Aussie Government spy. In Moscow, he reappears in the regalia of a KGB Colonel. He coolly explains: "The Australians think you are a spy for the Russians. They want me to kill you. The Russians brought me over to look after you. Frankly, it's a bit of a tangle. I'll have to make it up as I go along." Delightfully, the film too makes itself up as it goes along.
The night Stalin rejoined his Georgian ancestors, a panicky Joan tells Nine " I killed him." In the ensuing consolation, Joan and Nine sleep together. The next day, Comrades Beria, Krushchev and Malenkov whom Stalin, ever the lover of Hollywood flicks, derisively called his Three Stooges, feast Joan with flowers and song.
Returning to Sydney pregnant, our heroine finally marries her longtime suitor Welch whose Red politics are mostly a way to stay with Joan. Geoffrey Rush of "Shine" does him in a quiet, minor key and sometimes reminds me of James Woods.
Nine months later, a son is born to her. He is named Joe. The kid grows up properly indoctrinated, and with a love of jails, something that starts out as a child's a game --with the assistance of friendly, amused policemen.
As young Joe grows up, the movie, with its knack for the unexpected, slyly treats his kinky prison complex as a form of bondage. It leads to a wonderful love affair with arresting, leather- and-handcuffs-bearing mounted constable Anna. (She reminds me at times of Juliet Lewis). There are hilarious scenes of touchy-feely sex through the prison parlor's glass and wire.
Madly inventive details chronicle Joe's career, from learning in prison about Stalin's crimes to being "tortured" by the authorities with industrial strength frying bacon smells that are supposed to break him. Joe becomes a hero during a jail fire, grows a mustache (intelligently, not exactly like Stalin's) to cover his burned lip, goes on to amassing political power, but not in the direction that Mom expected.
Joan is not only let down by her flesh and blood, but by the Gorbachev years which will lead inexorably to the horror of a McDonald's in Red Square and "the end of civilization as we know it." All the while, Joe is solicitously looked after by his now-wife Anna, his nominal father Welch, and by a weirdly sweet and loving Nine who suspects that Joe may be his own son.
Writer-director Duncan rewrites Australian history with an uncompromising courage for unrealistic fantasy. (Note, among other aspects, how some principal characters hardly age). Duncan treats events and characters as wildly fabricated history and with bits wildly borrowed from movies.
Duncan's two BAs (1989)-- in Arts and in Laws --were followed by a period of legal practice. He then switched to a three-year degree from the Australian Film, TV and Radio school, made short films while at the school and co-wrote the excellent documentary series Faces of War.
COTR, his grand slam feature debut, began as a discussion he had about Christianity. This led to thinking about twentieth century passions, and to remembrances of his own grand-father, a card carrying communist party member who never wavered in his faith in Stalin.
The resulting movie goes well beyond socialism and communism. Its subtext is what longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902 -1983) wrote so sharply about in books like The True Believer ( on mass movements), or The Ordeal of Change (on reactions to major sociopolitical upheavals). Whether or not Duncan knew those works, their principles underlie his film. Political and other -isms are interchangeable. Whether fanatics or opportunists, the believers can switch to other camps.
Filmically, COTR deals with Marxism in a Groucho Marxian way. Characters are exaggerated, break into American movie songs ( ("I Get a Kick Out Of You." "You're the Top"), even dance, at the drop of a cap. The fabricated facts go into seeming incoherences and non sequiturs as they break the rules of orderly scripting. Film buffs will find many (but not obvious) cinematic touches. Such as a parody of the already parodied commissars in Ninotchka , or as when Joe, gradually alienating himself from others, is seen isolated in his large, "inhuman" office that echoes visuals of Citizen Kane.
There may be too much packed in the movie, although a second viewing will sift through the components and makes the film even more coherent and enjoyable for those who are aware of history and film history. The paradox here is that this work about the masses is not a film for the masses.