East-West (France-Russia, 1999) ***
Directed by Regis Wargnier. Written by Wargnier, Roustan Ibraguimbek, Sergei Bodrov, Louis Gardel. Photography, Laurent Dailland. Editing, Herve Schneid. Production design, Vladimir Svetozarov, Alexei Levtchenko. Music, Patrick Doyle. Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire (Marie), Oleg Menchikov (Alexei Golovin), Catherine Deneuve (Gabrielle), Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (Sacha), Ruben Tapiero (Serioja at 7), Erwan Baynaud (Serioja at 14), Grigoru Manoukiv, Tatiana Doguileva, Bogdan Stupka, Meglena Massalitinova, Valentine Gavev, Nikilai Binev, Rene Feret, et al. A Sony Classics release. In French (and some Russian) with subtitles. 121 minutes. PG-13. At the New Art Theatre.
World War II ended in 1945. A year later, in June 1946, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin started a barrage of propaganda in the West, especially western Europe where there were many thousands of Russian émigrés. Stalin promised milk and honey, or more specifically, amnesty, a Russian passport, a warm welcome to the Soviet Union which the returnees would help reconstruct after its destructions during the Hitler War, and in fact make it even better a Workers' Paradise than it used to be. Russians seem to be more sentimental and nostalgic for their country than other people. So a lot of the émigrés took the bait --and lived (sometimes very briefly) to regret it.
Among them was Alexei Golovin a young doctor from Paris, his young French wife Marie, and their 7-year French-born son Serioja.
No sooner had the ship reached Odessa, even before all the passengers were on terra firms, the Golovin couple and many others realized what a mistake their return was. The majority of returnees get jailed, executed or are sent to gulags. The Golovins are spared because the Soviets need doctors.
The family is sent to Kiev, in a horrible "kommunalka" apartment where at best one gets just room per family, shares facilities (an euphemism--we see a man coming out of the toilet carrying his own wooden seat!), have no peace, no privacy, and be subjected to miseries by others. The people are also always spied upon, informed on, betrayed. It's not a wonderful life.
Very, very soon Marie wants to return to France -- and she would be stupid if she did not--but in the Soviet Union, what's done cannot be undone. Stalinist paranoia and mass madness rule, no one is safe, not even in his or her thoughts, not to mention that the least act or action can and will result in catastrophes.
Alexei agrees with his wife, but being more realistic (as well as of Russian extraction) he advises patience --which will lead a split in the couple. It's all very believable and very well documented and shown. A third, important character, depending on your set of mind, may or may not be considered a melodramatic addition. He is Sacha, the teen-ager and star swimmer (played by the son of one of the film's writers) who, under circumstances that I find not at all hard to believe, enters into a special relationship with Marie and later becomes part of her scheme to be taken back to France. The latter is a thread (a fat one too) that runs throughout the plot as it deals with the failed efforts of the woman (partly because her French passport was torn up by the Soviets) to contact French authorities in Russia.
There is a great more in incidents, events, surprises, suspense and criticism of Stalinist Russia. The movie was filmed in Russia for the most part, and has an undeniable visual authenticity. It is, of course, manicheistic, with white hats vs black hats, but there is really no way to maintain half-tones and subtleties in situations which, in real life, were black and white with little in-between.
Political films are becoming rare and more's the pity. Wargnier (pronounced Var-NYEH) had earlier won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for his also political "Indochine."I hope he stays on the track of history and politics, which teaches audiences a great deal more than space travel fiction.