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‘The Death of Stalin’ shows the banality of evil with a laugh

Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci is a master of biting political satire. His Oscar-nominated script for “In the Loop,” about the rhetorical cul-de-sacs that lead to war, and his Emmy-winning TV series “Veep,” about the dysfunction and political shenanigans in Washington D.C., are models of high-minded wit and searing insight, punctuated with choice dollops of vulgarity.

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Iannucci has now turned his sights from the contemporary to the historical with his new film, “The Death of Stalin.” The Soviet despot reigned over one of the most brutal regimes in human history. But Iannucci manages to wring big absurdist laughs out of these very grim circumstances. He sees the comedy in tragedy without losing sight of the tragic. And the result is one of the funniest films you’re likely to see all year.

The humor quotient is no doubt aided by the fact that Stalin, the worst of the worst, dies early on in the film. Stalin’s body is lying on the floor of his office, in a pool of his own urine, when the members of the ruling Central Committee burst in, one after the other, to discover their feared leader dead.

What immediately follows is an extended, almost slapstick, bit on how to deal with the soiled body of a revered leader. One by one, the committee members try to demonstrate their abject love for Stalin by embracing his corpse, while also worrying about ruining their nice suits with their great leader’s bodily fluids. It’s low-brow comedy in a high-brow context.

Stalin’s henchmen include Moscow party head Nikita Khrushchev, Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov, the head of the secret police Lavrentiy Beria, and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. They’ve been terrorizing their countrymen for years, but suddenly they find themselves living in terror of each other, as they jockey for position in a new Russia.

Much of the film’s comedy lies in the paranoid one-upsmanship at the heart of this deadly power struggle. Here, for instance, is a verbal skirmish over who should have and should not have been invited to Stalin’s funeral held during the formal funeral itself.

“Ask Barry if he invited the bishops.”

“Don’t give me orders.”

“Ask Barry if he invited the bishops.”

“Did you invite the bishops?”

“Yes.”

“He said yes.”

“I’m going to give everyone in Red Square a voucher permitting one kick each…”

These powerful and ruthless men are reduced to stooges and buffoons in Iannucci’s script. The high and mighty are exposed as small and petty. They’re objects of scorn and ridicule. The laughing stocks of history.

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What grounds all the snappy one-liners, not to mention the film’s overall farcical nature, are the occasional glimpses of everyday brutalities, seen dimly in the background or heard just off camera. The effect is chilling. The laughs suddenly curdle, and the gravity and horror of the situation is made real, albeit obliquely.

The brilliant, fast-paced script is aided by an equally brilliant cast, led by Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, and Simon Russell Beale as the cut-throat Beria. (Buscemi’s Khrushchev is exasperated so much of the time that I could see the film being re-titled “Mr. Pink in Russia,” in deference to his classic role in “Reservoir Dogs.”)

The banality of evil is on full comic display in “The Death of Stalin.”

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