NEW YORK — 'THE Inner Circle" is a movie about politics, about love and marriage, about the energy and naivete of youth, about the magnetism of movies themselves. Perhaps most important, it's about the late and widely unlamented Soviet Union, where it was filmed - partly behind the walls of the Kremlin, where no major production has ventured before.
"The Inner Circle" does not show the USSR during the time of its thunderous birth, which has been portrayed in other movies from "Potemkin" to "Reds," nor does it depict the nation during its recent and dramatic breakup, which will surely be the subject of many films to come. Rather, it visits the USSR during the reign of Joseph Stalin, its most notorious dictator.
What's most unusual about the film's approach is that it portrays this period through the eyes of a character who doesn't just tolerate Stalin, but virtually worships him. This character is no dramatic invention, moreover, but is based on an actual Soviet citizen who - according to Columbia Pictures, which is releasing the film - remains a loyal Stalinist to this day.
Such a figure may seem an odd hero, given Stalin's known record as a vicious abuser of human rights. Yet focusing the story on this man lends the movie a sense of rueful irony that's more complex and compelling than the anticommunist preaching that American films on Soviet subjects used to crank out on a regular basis.
The story begins by introducing us to the protagonist, Ivan Sanshin, an ordinary young man who can't imagine why the KGB would barge into his home and drag him away on his wedding night. The reason soon comes clear: Ivan is a movie projectionist, and a worker with his skills is suddenly needed in the government's screening room.
To his astonishment, he finds himself projecting a movie for none other than Stalin and a few of the dictator's highest aides, including Beria, the universally feared KGB chief. Stalin takes a liking to Ivan, who becomes the ruler's regular projectionist - in steady contact with the Soviet leadership's inner circle, which gathers frequently to watch the movies he shows on his creaky Russian-made equipment.
Ivan is not only a worker, though. He's also a married man, and his new job poses a problem here, since he's forbidden to tell anyone, even his wife, Anastasia, where he works or what his employment is. Anastasia, meanwhile, is in a complicated situation of her own. A couple of neighbors have been purged by the authorities, and she is determined to adopt their orphaned daughter, or at least to see her regularly in the orphanage. Ivan knows this activity could land Anastasia and himself in trouble, since even the baby of a discredited family is a dangerous acquaintance during this paranoid period in Soviet history. The tension puts a serious strain on the Sanshin household.
"The Inner Circle" was directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian filmmaker who emigrated to the West in the late 1970s. His work in the Soviet Union included directing the ambitious "Siberiade" and helping to write some of the great Andrei Tarkovsky's films. His uneven track record in the American film industry ranges from the sappy "Maria's Lovers" and the brainless "Tango & Cash" to the powerful "Runaway Train," which is probably his most successful work.
"The Inner Circle" doesn't have the relentless drive of "Runaway Train," but it does have the benefit of Mr. Konchalovsky's first-hand relationship with Soviet society and history. Another main asset is Tom Hulce's high-energy performance as Ivan, who comes vividly alive as a spirited young man whose delight in living, loving, and working is strong enough to steamroll over any misgivings about Stalin and the evil things he represents.
The film has also been superbly photographed by Ennio Guarnieri, who captures Red Square, the Kremlin, and other locations in tones at once somber, crisp, and darkly beautiful.
With such virtues to its credit - and more, including a surprisingly subtle performance by Bob Hoskins as the KGB chief - it's too bad the film dilutes its effectiveness by running on much longer than it needs to, and by losing its momentum in scenes involving Anastasia and the orphan. At its best, "The Inner Circle" is a fully rounded portrait of a man whose very lack of insight and heroism makes him an uncommonly recognizable and convincing character. In its weaker episodes, though, it bogs down in its
own dramatic details.