If you’re anything like me, chances are high that the only film you’ve ever seen about Kazakhstan starred Sacha Baron Cohen and was not exactly flattering to the former Soviet republic. So when I received a press packet calling “The Gift to Stalin” “one of Kazakhstan’s most recent award-winning international hits,” I involuntarily thought, “very nice,” in a Borat accent.
While I don’t know how “The Gift to Stalin” compares with other works of Kazakh cinema, I can say that the film, opening on March 18 in New York, is a poetic fictional portrait, with lovely acting, of atrocities committed in the former Soviet republic during the reign of Stalin, in 1949.
The film is told largely from the humble vantage point of a young Jewish boy, Sasha, who pretends to be dead to escape from a trainload of Russian prisoners traveling through Kazakhstan. (In 1949, Kazakhstan received many ethnic minorities who had been targeted by Stalin’s purges.) While the Muslim Kazakh trackman, Kasym, sees through the boy’s ruse, he takes pity on the child and brings him into his home, at no small risk to himself.
Kasym, played by Nurjuman Ikhtimbayev, seems more like a candidate for a Bond villain than a snively young boy’s savior, with his scarred face, sealed eye and menacing physique. Yet appearances are deceiving, and beneath his scary exterior lurks that ever-helpful-to-a-narrative heart of gold. He has the boy’s name changed, by a Muslim shaman, to Sabyr, and identifies himself as the boy’s grandfather with help from his neighbor Verka, the exiled widow of an accused traitor.
Verka, played by Ekaterina Rednikova, is the mother figure in the film, bestowing instantaneous love on Sasha, hugging him close enough to allow him to admire the cross she has hidden between her two lovely breasts. Verka, it must be said, has the pillowy lips, high cheekbones, golden-brown tousled hair and figure of a top-of-the-line Victoria’s Secret model. Her beauty is a jarring note on a Kazakh steppe ruled by an oppressive regime. How bad can things really be, I kept wondering, if she can look that hot?
Joking aside, things are bad on the steppe; horrible policemen who routinely rape local women out of little more than boredom and sadism rule the people with an iron fist. The main event is Stalin’s approaching 70th birthday, and a contest develops in which the child offering the best present will be allowed to present it to Stalin personally. In true kid-reasoning, Sasha figures that this will be a good way to get a private audience with the dictator and ask him to release his parents.
This is a world where individual sparks are lost in the expanse of the steppe and in the cruelty of the Stalinist regime. Because what Stalin really wants is not the little white goat — Get it? A sacrifice? — that Sasha sends to him, but rather a test of Soviet nuclear capability, which destroys the lives of virtually everyone in the film. Verka’s wedding to Egi, a nice young doctor who also finds himself stranded on the steppe, is a last-ditch bid for happiness, one that is brutally crushed.
Some may see the film as a downer, even though we know, through flash-forwards, that eventually, Sasha does make it to Israel and survives. But it’s best to see this movie for what it does provide: a glimpse into a world and a time that filmgoers seldom get to see.
Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.