Lush with feeling that could easily be mistaken for sentimentality, Fedor Bondarchuk's 3D spectacle Stalingrad is more like a 19th-century novel than a 21st-century blockbuster. It's theatrical and intense, sometimes in an overbearing way, but it's never boring. Human fortitude is its real subject; history is merely its reason for existing. Stalingrad roughs out the story of the Russian army's desperate, and ultimately successful, struggle to wrest that city from the Germans in the fall of 1942. But Bondarchuk and his screenwriters weave a mythical component through the threads of history: Upon their arrival in the ravaged city, five soldiers set up a command post in a half-destroyed apartment building. There, living among the ruins, they meet 18-year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), who has survived the brutality of German forces. Katya is a metaphor for the Russian spirit if ever there was one, a gaunt, magical pixie with haunted eyes -- she's almost too much, Natalie Wood crossed with Giulietta Masina, with a dash of Anna Magnani's defiance. But she's so clearly a fantasy figure, a symbol of the unnameable spiritual something these desperate soldiers are fighting for, that her presence feels completely natural. The battle of Stalingrad was the most harrowing of the Second World War, and Bondarchuk doesn't skimp on the horrors; despite its obviously serious intentions, it sometimes looks too much like a generic Hollywood action picture. It's far more successful in addressing the cost of war to individuals, the way it either cracks them to pieces or draws out reserves of valor and integrity they didn't know they had -- or both.
Fyodor BondarchukThomas Kretschmann, Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Maria Smolnikova, Yana StudilinaIlya Tilkin, Sergei SnezhkinAlexander Rodnjansky, Dmitry Rudovskiy, Sergei Mel'kumovColumbia Pictures