East-West

France's entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Régis Wargnier's East-West is perfectly suited to the Academy's tepid standards, mounting history on a broad, eminently accessible canvas while forwarding a message that even the cruelest sadist wouldn't dispute. With a decade's safe distance from the demise of Communism in the Eastern Bloc, Wargnier takes a stance against Stalinist oppression, forsaking political relevancy for a stirring true account of human bravery and sacrifice. Though gutless at its core, East-West remains a crisp and engaging piece of storytelling, buoyed by a fine cast and a sumptuous recreation of the period. Set just after the end of WWII, the film opens in high spirits, as a ship full of Soviet émigrés who fled for Europe during the Communist Revolution return to their homeland under the assurance of amnesty. But as soon as they dock in Odessa, they become victims of a colossal bait-and-switch, with the vast majority either executed on the spot or sent to prison camps. Due to his medical expertise, Oleg Menshikov (Prisoner Of The Mountains) and French wife Sandrine Bonnaire (La Cérémonie) are lucky enough to get through without punishment, but their marriage begins to crumble from the harsh realities of iron-fisted Stalinism. Rather than spend more time detailing the day-to-day problems that come with Russian citizenship, Wargnier instead plays up their dramatic attempts to escape to Europe, a conventional choice that severely limits the nuances of character and setting. The superficial intrigue is not without its rousing moments, but as a paean to historical risk-takers, East-West never bothers to take one itself.

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