Unambiguous faith in God and love of country are invariably treated with skeptical bemusement and even contempt in Hollywood, so some lukewarm response was not unexpected over “Bitter Harvest’s” straightforward narrative.
Even so, the mean-spirited, derisive tone of certain film critics was surprising, despite their collective breast-beating that the tragic Holodomor story deserves to be told. But if so, then why all their attempts to diminish or even controvert the Holodomor?
A smokescreen of “artistic/technical shortcomings” was erected by some reviewers to conceal what they actually disliked about the film. Many voiced nostalgia for a kinder, gentler Stalin and “more subdued” Bolsheviks. Blu-Ray’s Brian Orndorf grumbled: “There are no sympathetic Russian characters in ‘Bitter Harvest.’ ”
The Irish Times derided “cutting from starvation in Kiev [sic] to shots of Stalin swilling red wine” as “preposterousness.” (Preposterous, perhaps, to a mindset where there is no such thing as Evil – only nuanced root causes, waiting to be contextualized.)
Moral posturing that the Holodomor deserves a more “reasonable” treatment rings hollow when Rotten Tomatoes “top critic” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (A.V. Club) also mourns the portrayal of Kremlin thugs as “wormy” and that Stalin “bellowed” – because in reality, “he had a very pleasant tenor singing voice.”
Next to Stalin, critics voted the kommissar most deserving of a make-over.
The Village Voice petulantly posted: “The Soviet kommissar is so cartoonishly evil he only lacks a handlebar mustache to twirl: He shoots priests, loots the church, hangs Yuri’s father,… forces the villagers off their land and runs down Natalka’s mother on horseback, splashing her freshly baked bread with blood. All that’s lacking is a villager standing over her fallen corpse, murmuring, “Truly, this is a bitter harvest.”
Significantly, not one of the reviewers deprecating “priests being shot” pointed out that the kommissar killed the priest only upon hearing “Hell is the inability to love” – an important clue to his anguished character. But how jaundiced to relegate these historical horrors to “cartoonishly evil.” Much, much worse actually happened. Or don’t Ukrainians merit empathy?
Perhaps some critics do indeed believe the Holodomor “deserves to be told” – but only when filtered through their ideological prisms. Evidently, “Bitter Harvest” did not pass the muster of political correctness.
Variety asserted “disagreement among historians,” lectured readers that “it’s far from clear that Stalin intended to starve the Ukrainians to death” and assessed the film to be “blatantly” fictionalized. San Francisco’s East Bay Express drifted further afield, lamenting the absence of “the messy intricacies of Soviet-Ukrainian relations, such as Ukrainian collaboration with the Germans in World War II or the role of anti-Soviet partisans.” (Why not then include the “messy intricacies” of Soviet-German pilot and tank schools in Kazan and the joint war gas and poison plants at Tomka in Samara Oblast?)
The Detroit News reviewer rejected the “horrors” portrayed: “Dead bodies litter the streets of Kiev, snarling Soviets smile condescendingly as children starve.” Except there were no “snarling Soviets smiling condescendingly.” The critic made it up. And the relatively few shots of dead bodies had far more restraint than those in “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and other Holocaust films.
The Washington Post dismissed the heroine’s descent to prostitution, intending to save her family, as “melodramatic mush.” Other critics mocked “the arrival of jack-booted, priest-killing Communists.” Yet no one blanched at the harrowing scene in “Schindler’s List” where Nazis inspect naked Jews like horses. Why are only some fact-based scenarios deemed “melodramatic?”
The Austin Chronicle ridiculed the hypnotic Kupalo ritual: “Clearly things are not going to end well.” Hollywood Reporter sniggered: “a Cossack haircut is unflattering on anyone.” Ultimately, The New York Times mocking a film about genocidal famine as a “misshapen meatball” was much more than a snide swipe at “Bitter Harvest” – it harbored a profound disrespect for a cataclysmic human tragedy.
Wherefore such insensitivity and nastiness? Judging by the reception of other historical epics, there seems to be a double standard.
Critics fawned over the 1982 film “Gandhi” (the Indian government’s paid political advertisement). But how many reviewers criticized that screenplay because it did not include Gandhi’s open letter to the British people urging them to welcome Nazi invaders? Or Gandhi’s refusal to let his wife get a shot of penicillin, letting her die – while he himself cheerfully accepted quinine for his malaria and allowed British doctors to perform on him the Western outrage of an appendectomy?
In 1981, critics also rushed to praise Warren Beatty’s “Reds” (94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) where Soviet enthusiast John Reed (Beatty) is ever so tactfully portrayed as becoming faintly disillusioned with Communism. The final voice-over: “Grand things are ahead – worth living and worth dying for.” No mention of the coming 83 million deaths due to Bolshevism.
So if Mr. Beatty’s “Reds” are judged by such laudable intentions alone, how dare “Bitter Harvest” now portray a “one dimensional” Stalin clearly aiming to destroy a whole nation? Walter Duranty’s omelette is still on the menu. One must always remain “nuanced,” as today’s critics tirelessly remind us.
The Hollywood/reviewer elite consider themselves the conscience and cultural vanguard of our nation. Today, their Narrative is globalism and open borders, while nationalism is maligned as extremism.
Enter “Bitter Harvest,” extolling pride and love of one’s country, and critics have a predictable meltdown. But they shroud it with supposedly artistic caveats, protesting that “Bitter Harvest” is “cornball, swoopy, schmaltzy” and “extreme” – the barbarians are too clear-cut! (Would a more “authentic” Stalin conflicted with, um, daddy issues be more acceptable perhaps?)
Several reviews disparaged the “patriotic vanity” of the diaspora in making this film. If the speech by Mykola (Skrynyk) in the movie about “Ukraine taking her rightful place among the great nations of Europe” might have also rankled these critics, we’ll never know.
“Bitter Harvest” flies against today’s globalism and moral ambiguities, and exposes myths about the Soviets that have been preached by academia, media and critical elites for decades.
No wonder certain critics are bitter.