Postwar Russia under Joseph Stalin is hell, Circle Number 9. This film descends into that Stalinist netherworld after the Soviet Union opens its Iron Curtain in 1946 to beckon natives living abroad to return to the mother country to live in peace and build a new society. But after returnees debark at Odessa, the curtain closes seamlessly, sealing them inside a nightmare of repression. French director and scriptwriter (Régis Wargnier) gives the film an epic sweep with grandiose music, stunning cinematography, and high melodrama. Flags wave, soldiers march, citizen spies wag tongues, and love spins a tangled web. Wargnier and his co-writers center the story on the fictional Golovine family from France: Russian native Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), a talented physician; his beautiful French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire); and their son, Serioja (played at age seven by Ruben Tapiero and at age 14 by Erwan Baynaud). Upon their arrival at Odessa, they witness the murder of an uncooperative returnee, then undergo humiliating interrogation. A Soviet thug beats Marie. Functionaries then assign the Golovines to a communal Kiev apartment as depressing as their prospects for a happy life. Wargnier uses the dismal living quarters as a microcosm of Soviet domestic life. Furnishings are spare and dingy. Officious neighbors listen through walls. Paranoia and claustrophobia become the norm, motivating Marie to make escape an urgent priority and to take foolhardy risks. Alexei, who has settled into his job as medical director of the Red Flag Factory, pleads for prudence and careful planning. Arguments estrange them, and they find solace in alien arms. Overall, the screenplay brilliantly depicts Stalinist tyranny and the nebulous void that cocoons Soviet citizens. The acting is strong, the period atmosphere authentic. Catherine Deneuve adds star power in her appearance as a visiting French actress who abets Marie's escape plan. Though the film lacks the artistic subtlety and understatement of so many other French motion pictures, it is nevertheless a good production with more strengths than weaknesses.
by Mike Cummings review