This darkest of farces creates laughs but doesn’t let you forget that the dictator and his coterie caused the deaths of untold numbers of Soviet citizens. It goes from his final days through the battle for power among his intimidated minions.
When Karl Marx, of all people, wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, he couldn’t have known of the terrifying end of days of the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, nor the gleeful savagery with which it’s reproduced in the dazzling “The Death of Stalin.”
Co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci — the creator of HBO’s “Veep,” who wrote the Oscar-nominated script for “In the Loop” — this is a comedy of terrors that creates laughs but doesn’t let you forget that Stalin (played as a genial psychopath by Adrian McLoughlin) and his coterie caused the deaths of untold numbers of Soviet citizens.
Iannucci’s take-no-prisoners directorial style is perfect for this darkest of farces. It’s a film that takes us from Stalin’s final days in March 1953 through the battle for power among his intimidated minions — spineless but dangerous sycophants who made up the dictator’s potential successors.
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The director has said that he took special care with casting, trying to match the actors to the historical personages, and that has led to a formidable group including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend.
Rather than mandate uniform accents, Iannucci allowed everyone to speak naturally, which makes the largely British cast sound, unnervingly at times, like an unruly group of soccer hooligans who have somehow gotten an entire country under their thumb.
Yet, as bizarre as the film’s end-of-days shenanigans seem — including specifics like Stalin’s bottomless enthusiasm for American Westerns and juvenile practical jokes involving squashed tomatoes — almost all of them are based on fact.
Though the old USSR is long gone, the current authoritarian regime in Russia has a soft spot for its Stalinist past, so much so that “The Death of Stalin” was recently banned from the country’s theaters for “extremism” and the way it “desecrates our historical symbols.” That’s how close to the bone this remarkable film cuts.
“The Death of Stalin,” with Adrian McLoughlin, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend. Directed by Armando Iannucci, from a screenplay by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin, based on a novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. 107 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references. SIFF Cinema Egyptian. The Los Angeles Times does not include star ratings with reviews.