An old cliché tells us that the truth is stranger than fiction. If one were looking for an example to prove their point, the historical comedy-drama The Death of Stalin could certainly serve as exhibit A. If the truth really is truly stranger than fiction then it was never more evident than in director Armando Iannucci’s retelling of the events of the film’s title.

Based on what I’ve gleaned from research, the largest part of what transpires in this darkly comedic film apparently really did take place in the real world, which makes it all the more incredible. It leaves one to question what other historical events might also make a compelling film should aspiring filmmakers take the time to seek them out.

The opening scene of the film sets the farcical tone as to what you can reasonably expect and it’s a memorable sequence. We are introduced to most of the real life characters that loom large later in the film as a Mozart recital is broadcast live over the Moscow airwaves. A phone call is received at the concert hall from none other than Joseph Stalin himself. He demands a recording of the concert be transcribed to disc and sent along immediately.

Trouble is that the concert wasn’t recorded for posterity and that it was only intended for radio broadcast. Of course, it goes without saying that what Stalin wants Stalin gets, and so it’s up to the radio station’s employees to restage the concert completely, going so far as to not allow the audience to leave until the entire thing can be successfully performed a second time out.  And, yes, this really did happen, as incredible as it may seem.

Once the recording is sent to Stalin, he discovers a note enclosed from the orchestra’s lead pianist venting her frustrations at what she perceives as Stalin’s ruination of a once promising political system. Stalin, much like some modern political leaders in our midst, doesn’t take criticism very well. This serves as a catalyst for a fatal stroke that Stalin suffers while reading the note.

Upon hearing of his illness, the members of the central committee attempt to figure out what to do next. Stalin, initially, isn’t dead but only incapacitated. While awaiting the fate of the fallen leader a power struggle occurs that grows more incredible with each passing scene. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried.

The film is filled with great performances from terrific character actors such as Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushche, Michael Palin as Molotov and Jeffrey Tambor, to name a few of the familiar faces on display. It’s a joy to watch these performers sink their teeth into a story that continues to surprise with each successive revelation. This is a slice of history that is so strong that it’s inconceivable that it’s just now being made into a film. Better late than never I’d say.

As FOCUS goes to press, The Death of Stalin is playing in Winston-Salem and in Charlotte.

Image: Tambor, Buscemi, Beale & Adrian McLoughlin as dead Stalin

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