July 21, 1995 in Seven

‘Burnt’ Is Touching Tragedy Of Russia In The ‘30s

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Before the Oscars were awarded in March, two films had emerged as prebroadcast favorites: “Before the Rain,” the powerful Macedonian civil-war drama, and “Farinelli,” the Belgian-made entry about an 18thcentury castrato opera singer.

Few movie viewers had even heard of the Russian entry, “Burnt By the Sun,” much less thought it was going to win.

Yet win it did and not just so that director Nikita Mikhalkov could show up for the ceremonies with his adorable daughter in tow (even Hollywood isn’t that self-indulgent).

Co-written (with Rustam Ibraguimbekov) by director Mikhalkov, “Burnt By the Sun” may be a bit too self-consciously ambitious and, consequently, long, but it nevertheless is a striking look at an era of Russian history that only now is emerging from behind a cloak of secrecy.

Set in the post-Revolutionary years of the 1930s, the film centers on a famous Soviet officer and his adopted family. Col. Kotov (Mikhalkov) is a “hero of the revolution” whose likeness is nearly as well-known as that of Josef Stalin himself.

The film, which unfolds in a single day, documents the inexorable power of the Stalinist purges that ultimately overwhelmed any segment of Soviet society that was suspected of being a threat to the established regime. It was a time of paranoia, one in which the dreaded knock could come at the door when least expected.

That threat extended even to the bucolic heartland, whose strongbacked peasantry served as the very model of the new Soviet order: hard-working, patriotic and eminently pragmatic when it came to choosing between empty shows of military force and the necessity of producing food for the country’s collective stomach.

The film begins as Kotov, a vital man in his mid-50s, is enjoying a rare holiday with his thirtysomething wife, their daughter and her extended family of diverse individuals. Playing like a variation of “Uncle Vanya,” the story begins to gel when a stranger appears, wearing a disguise that ends up being both literal and figurative.

The stranger is Mitya (Oleg Menchikov), who grew up in the household over which Kotov now rules, and who once was intimate with Kotov’s wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite). Mitya, an agent for the Russian secret police, jousts with Kotov in a playfully sinister manner throughout the day.

Only when the day draws to a close does he reveal his dark intent.

Like the best of political dramas, “Burnt By the Sun” tries to put a human face on the suffering of those who disappear during times of danger. And to that end, it is effective: Kotov is an arrogant man, cocksure of his position as one of Stalin’s favorites and probably responsible for the breakup of Mitya’s relationship with Maroussia. But he is a sympathetic figure, too, a kind husband, father and patron to his friends.

So that even though he likely is guilty of something, Kotov is that curious creation: a true believer with something to lose - a family, perhaps, or just personal honor - who typically, and ironically, ends up losing it all.

Besides, if for no other reason, Kotov warrants our sympathies because of his relationship with his daughter (played by Mikhalkov’s daughter in real life, Nadia). The young girl, who lights up any room that she enters, loves him as dearly as he worships her.

In fact, it is the relationship between these two - performed by a veteran actor-director and a girl who, at such a tender age, is already a superb actress - that provides the film its essential poignancy. For despite some nice touches, such as scenes where the absence of sound only magnifies the touch of fingers on a glass or the creak of a wicker rocker, much of “Burnt By the Sun” is either under- or overdone.

The problems include a pace that is positively glacial, the arty, too literally metaphorical fireballs that flow from one setting to the next, the ubiquitous celebrations of Stalin and an obnoxious truck driver who spends virtually the entire film trying to find a remote village.

All in all, though, “Burnt By the Sun” is an honorable effort and, therefore, ultimately forgivable. It’s an admirable attempt at melding Chekhov with a post-Cold War confessional of tragic times past.

Oscar says so.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “Burnt By the Sun” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed and co-written by Nikita Mikhalkov, starring Nikita Mikhalkov, Oleg Menchikov, Nadia Mikhalkov and Ingeborga Dapkounaite (in Russian with English subtitles). Running time: 2:14 Rating: R

Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Burnt By the Sun:” Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Extraordinary ending, extraordinary film, extraordinary depth and reach - the most potent example yet of Mikhalkov’s heartfelt artistry. Don’t let the fact that it won an Oscar keep you from “Burnt by the Sun.” Caryn James/New York Times: If at times it seems that Mikhalkov has used his imagery too bluntly, by the film’s end he has put every bit of symbolism to effective use. Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: … the real fire Mikhalkov captures in “Burnt by the Sun” is that of a people who can’t let history turn their humanity to ash. Desson Howe/The Washington Post: “Burnt by the Sun” is oldfashioned, auteurist filmmaking, the kind that grows from a filmmaker’s unrestrained vision rather than a Hollywood studio marketing survey. As such, “Burnt by the Sun,” directed by Russia’s Nikita Mikhalkov, has all the attendant pluses and minuses of these cinematic dinosaurs - but mostly pluses. Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: At more than two hours, the movie could have used more editing. Still, the interesting film becomes captivating when the final scenes put everything in perspective.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “Burnt By the Sun” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed and co-written by Nikita Mikhalkov, starring Nikita Mikhalkov, Oleg Menchikov, Nadia Mikhalkov and Ingeborga Dapkounaite (in Russian with English subtitles). Running time: 2:14 Rating: R

Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Burnt By the Sun:” Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Extraordinary ending, extraordinary film, extraordinary depth and reach - the most potent example yet of Mikhalkov’s heartfelt artistry. Don’t let the fact that it won an Oscar keep you from “Burnt by the Sun.” Caryn James/New York Times: If at times it seems that Mikhalkov has used his imagery too bluntly, by the film’s end he has put every bit of symbolism to effective use. Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: … the real fire Mikhalkov captures in “Burnt by the Sun” is that of a people who can’t let history turn their humanity to ash. Desson Howe/The Washington Post: “Burnt by the Sun” is oldfashioned, auteurist filmmaking, the kind that grows from a filmmaker’s unrestrained vision rather than a Hollywood studio marketing survey. As such, “Burnt by the Sun,” directed by Russia’s Nikita Mikhalkov, has all the attendant pluses and minuses of these cinematic dinosaurs - but mostly pluses. Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: At more than two hours, the movie could have used more editing. Still, the interesting film becomes captivating when the final scenes put everything in perspective.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email