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‘Death of Stalin’ a funny, pointed political satire

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From left, Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley and Simon Russell Beale appear in “The Death of Stalin.” (Courtesy Nicola Dove/IFC Films)

A satire about power, autocracy and fake news, 1950s Soviet style, “The Death of Stalin” depicts the bloody struggle that occurred among government ministers following the death of the Soviet dictator.

Combining farcical humor and real-life horror, British filmmaker Armando Iannucci has created one of the most satisfying big-screen political comedies since his own “In the Loop.”

With this banned-in-Russia movie, Iannucci, whose additional credits include the BBC series “The Thick of It” and HBO’s “Veep,” enters the riskier terrain of comedy rooted in unsettling truth.

Adapted by Iannucci and three fellow screenwriters from two French graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the talky film is set in 1953 in Joseph Stalin’s Russia. Fear chills the atmosphere. Falling out of favor with Stalin can get a subordinate imprisoned or shot.

The major madness begins when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) collapses in his dacha and soon dies. Immediately, his main underlings begin meeting and maneuvering to determine who will succeed him.

The brutal battle primarily involves Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin’s ruthless secret-police chief, and the underestimated Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Moscow’s more reformist Moscow party leader.

Also in the mix: Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s vain, visionless deputy and presumed successor; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), a Stalinist so devoted that he still believes regime-spun false narratives after they’ve been rescinded; and Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the testosterone-fueled army commander, who calls the others “girls.”

Stalin’s children — nervous Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and hotheaded Vasily (Rupert Friend) — add to the commotion.

As these and other characters swagger, bully, brown-nose and connive to save their careers and their skin, the film doesn’t achieve the brilliance of Iannucci’s Middle East war-themed “In the Loop.” Nor does it contain a character as memorable as that movie’s inimitably profane Peter Capaldi-portrayed press chief.

But Iannucci has, regardless, made a sharp, funny, scary and, sadly, relevant satire and solidified his status as one of our top comic auteurs.

By consistently acknowledging the horror of his title character’s reign, Iannucci is able to successfully present such material humorously.

A fitting tone of dread pervades the comedy.

Iannucci efficiently juggles about 10 substantial characters, keeping the multi-strand story cohesive.

Few duds exist among the jokes, which range from zingy one-liners to corpse gags. Pallbearers talk politics while carrying Stalin’s coffin. How does one find a doctor to treat the dying dictator when the best physicians are dead or in the gulag?

The inclusion of factual elements relating to the characters — Stalin’s fondness for squashed-tomato pranks, for example — provide stranger-than-fiction authenticity.

The actors give top-rate, impressively in-character performances. Standouts are Buscemi, as the deceptively unpolished Khrushchev, and Beale, whose vicious Beria, too, delivers surprises.

The cast also features Olga Kurylenko as a Stalin-hating pianist and Paddy Considine as a panicked Radio Moscow producer who orders an orchestra to re-perform a Mozart concert after Stalin demands a recording of it. (It’s reportedly true.)

The Death of Stalin
Three stars
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor
Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 47 minutes
Note The movie screens at the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

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