GLASNOST is making a difference to moviegoers, in the United States as well as the Soviet Union. Last year brought the Soviet and American premi`eres of ``Repentance,'' a politically charged Soviet film that had been shelved for two years by censors - who disliked its surrealistic attack on Stalinism in human consciousness and Soviet history. This year brings an even more significant and dramatic event: the long-overdue release of ``Commissar,'' a bold and bruising Soviet movie that was completed 20 years ago but has never been allowed to find an audience. It was directed by Alexander Askoldov, whose filmmaking career reportedly came to a virtual halt when ``Commissar'' fell into displeasure.
Like the ambitious ``Repentance,'' and perhaps other suppressed films still waiting for review by glasnost-enlightened officials, ``Commissar'' looks toughly and iconoclastically at events of Soviet history. Its setting is the Ukraine in 1922, when the Bolshevik Revolution was followed by a savagely fought civil war.
The main character is a cold-as-borsch commissar who leads her brigade of Reds with rigid discipline. When we first meet her, she's ordering the instant execution of a soldier who briefly left his comrades without leave.
It soon turns out she's all too human, though. In fact, she has managed to become pregnant out of wedlock, and it's too late to ``do something'' about this embarrassing situation. She slinks off to an out-of-the-way place where she can give birth in secret, and finds herself billeted with a poor Jewish family that's anything but pleased with this new houseguest.
The censorship problems of ``Commissar'' evidently sprang from its compassionate portrait of the Jewish characters, who practically take over the movie from its nominal heroine. These parts aren't written or performed with much subtlety, and the most important of them - a handyman named Yefim, who's head of the household - veers perilously close to stereotype as he mugs and dances his way across the screen. By all accounts, however, Jewish peasants have been completely absent from Soviet cinema for the past 50 years. What's significant in ``Commissar'' is not their degree of realism, but the fact that Mr. Askoldov has treated them at all, much less with such sympathy and affection.
More astonishing yet is the hallucinatory hub of the film, a flash-forward to the future of Jews like Yefim and his family. This isn't an integral part of the story; it's a vision that suddenly grips the commissar, who imagines her new friends branded with Jewish stars and marching inexorably toward death in a concentration camp. This nightmarish evocation of Holocaust misery is highly unusual and perhaps completely unprecedented for a Soviet film - in its profound empathy with Jewish suffering and, more important, its implicit suggestion that Russian antiSemitism and Nazi barbarity are historically of the same fabric and cannot be separated in historical analysis.
Soviet censors may have jumped on ``Commissar'' with particular anxiety because of its timing: It was completed shortly before Israel defeated Soviet allies in the Six Day War of 1967. In any case, trouble was quick in coming. The authorities were willing to consider a release of the film, Askoldov has told Western reporters, only if he'd agree to certain changes: eliminating the death-march scene and changing the Jewish family to another nationality.
Askoldov refused these suggestions, and the authorities refused him a meaningful career for the next two decades. Only now does he again have a significant opportunity to work in his chosen medium. The belated success of ``Commissar'' is the reason: It has been acclaimed at festivals in San Francisco and West Berlin, as well as Moscow itself, and will reportedly have a Soviet theatrical run this autumn.
``Commissar'' has a more tortured production history than the similarly controversial ``Repentance,'' which also made its way to Soviet and American screens recently. Of the two films, however, ``Commissar'' is easily the more accessible for Western audiences.
True, director Askoldov doesn't hesitate to deviate from strictly realistic action, whether it's to peer into the future or to boost a sequence's visceral impact with impressionistic editing. Yet his movie stays rooted in naturalism, avoiding the delirious flights of free-associative fancy on which ``Repentance'' director Tenghiz Abuladze frequently relies.
The performances in ``Commissar'' are also noteworthy. Nonna Mordyukova conveys the commissar's strong personality without eclipsing the important Jewish characters. Rolan Bykov, a respected actor and director, effortlessly embodies the archetypal traits of Yefim, even if filmmaker Askoldov allows him to push his portrayal too hard at times.
Among the supporting players, Vasily Shukshin stands out as an officer in the commissar's military entourage.
``Commissar'' is a political event and a cultural breakthrough. It's also a terrific movie, though, reaching out to a wide audience with images of universal meaning. Its appearance is all the more welcome for being overdue. So is the arrival of Alexander Askoldov as a filmmaker of international reputation and importance.