Rustem Abdrashev’s The Gift to Stalin feels like a throwback to another era—and that’s got nothing to do with the film being set during the lead-up to the USSR’s celebration of Stalin’s birthday in 1949, when ethnic and political undesirables were shipped off to remote regions like that of Kazakhstan. Surprisingly, this historical epic contains a very-‘70s, spare-no-expense-for-art studio aesthetic (its Kazakh producer is an oil and gas man with a private film company) and an engagingly slow-moving, highly detailed narrative that isn’t very much in vogue these days. It’s a movie a guy like Terence Malick would appreciate—one that lulls rather than forces us into another time, a different world.
“Only his fear gave him a feeling of life,” the off-screen narrator says in voiceover about his younger self, a Jewish boy named Sashka (Dalen Schintermirov) who is shipped off to a no-man’s land with his grandfather, who dies along the way. When the sardine-tight cattle car makes a stop to deposit the dead, Sashka is hidden away among the bodies—and subsequently rescued by the railroad worker Kasym (Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev in a riveting performance), a gentle giant of few words tasked with corpse collecting and who resembles what Tom Hardy’s Bronson might have looked like had he been dug up from a graveyard himself. The Jewish Sashka is soon adopted into the Kazakh (Muslim) Kasym’s makeshift family, which also includes the Russian (Christian) Verka, the wife of a political traitor, and the Polish (Jewish) Yezhi, a doctor.
In less assured hands, A Gift to Stalin—the title refers both to the present Sashka wants to give the great leader in the hope his parents will be set free and the real gift given to Stalin, the atomic bomb—might have descended into a series of maudlin setups. True, there are missteps in the form of the too broadly drawn policeman Balgabai (a great name for a villain, though the actor seems cartoonish trying to hold his own against the rest of the formidable cast) and a few too cutesy scenes (such as one in which a loudly snoring Kasym wakes up the sleeping boy) as well as a schmaltzy soundtrack. But these mistakes are easily transcended by Ikhtimbaev’s award-worthy turn as surrogate grandpa to Sashka, along with subtle, truthful acting from both Yekaterina Rednikova as Verka and Waldemar Szczepaniak as Yezhi.
Fortunately, director Abdrashev has the confidence to patiently create an atmosphere—a film in which the barking of dogs and the rustling of leaves, birds chirping in a nest and laundry rustling in the wind, are every bit as important as the vast dry landscapes that seem more like moonscapes. The Gift to Stalin is that rare small story set in a big time (not unlike Malick’s Days of Heaven), poetic both in Khasanbek Kydyraliev’s cinematography and in Pavel Finn’s script. “A sky for a runaway is open and he does not have horizons,” the older Sashka says as the younger one navigates the railroad tracks along the Kazakh steppes, a line soon followed by “then he soaked in the smell of the steppes’ heat.” A Russian soldier reminds the Kazakh Balgabai that, “For us, out of all arts, movies are the most important,” as a military camera crew arrives in anticipation of Stalin’s (literal) birthday blast. For Abdrashev, a reverence for Soviet history and a reverence for movie history are one and the same. Indeed, when Sashka asks whether a sea was once there, this after Kasym hands him a shell buried in the desert sand, his newfound grandpa answers simply, “Everything was here before.”