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IDFA 2020

Review: Gorbachev. Heaven

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- Vitaly Mansky’s new documentary is a long, intense conversation with the 89-year-old former leader of the Soviet Union

Review: Gorbachev. Heaven

Vitaly Mansky’s new documentary Gorbachev. Heaven [+see also:
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was world-premiered during this year’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, in the main competitive strand, and is also being screened in the Black Nights Film Festival's Baltic Film Competition. Once again, the Russian documentarian chooses to delve into the complex state of things in his own country by gaining special access to the life of Mikhail Gorbachev, the 89-year-old former leader of the Soviet Union, who receives him in his fancy, wallpapered (and old-fashioned) house just outside the capital.

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The first shots introduce this homey environment, where the leader feels at ease and is spending his retirement. The large building was donated by the leaders of the states that gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Next, the camera begins focusing on the old man, who admits to being afflicted by many of the ailments common to people his age, often caused by sudden changes in the weather. Most of the documentary is a long, intense conversation with the statesman, characterised by a rather light-hearted atmosphere, especially in its first stages.

Here, Mansky attempts to capture the spirit of both the man and the politician, partially achieving his goal but evidently fighting against Gorbachev’s ambiguous attitude and enigmatic answers – his evasiveness is plain to see on screen, in particular when the two start chatting about the theme of freedom and democracy in the early 1990s and contemporary Russia as well as his disputed role as a “real socialist” and “hero” for the citizens of the former Soviet republics and Russia itself. The discussion becomes gradually more spirited, but nonetheless keeps up a sort of levity throughout, often enriched by Gorbachev’s spontaneous interruptions, jokes, folk songs, poems and anecdotes about his public and private life, including his marriage with his beloved Raisa, who passed away in 1999. The director is clearly taken aback by some of Gorbachev’s reactions, as he occasionally decides to stop talking, questions the nature of the documentary project and obstinately stands behind his arguments. In addition, from time to time, the camera seems curiously captivated by the man’s visible signs of old age, and this is conveyed by the numerous close-ups and extreme close-ups of his wrinkles, his veins and his characteristic port-wine stain. It is an effective tool for creating suspense, more than once accompanying Gorbachev’s wistful silences.

Even though Mansky openly voices his opinion on Russia’s current state of affairs, the whole film is guided by the director’s genuine interest in unpacking a number of delicate topics, and commendably, his interview is underpinned by good journalistic rigour. While the cinematic experience offered by Gorbachev. Heaven may not be particularly exciting for viewers, it definitely represents a valuable historical account of the former president of the Soviet Union’s latter-day perspectives on the great global transformations he took part in at the time of the country’s dissolution – and that remains its strongest feature. Owing to the current circumstances, the scene set during the most recent New Year’s Eve becomes even more significant and surprising, as it depicts Gorbachev expressing his take on the coming year of 2020, while the TV airs Vladimir Putin’s traditional end-of-year speech from the Kremlin.

Gorbachev. Heaven was produced by Latvia’s Film Studio Vertov, in co-production with the Czech Republic’s Hypermarket Film, ARTE (France/Germany) and Czech Television, and in association with Current Time TV (USA). Leipzig-based Deckert Distribution is in charge of its international sales.

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