Burnt by the Sun, which took 1994's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, has been blurbed as "exquisite," "lyrical," and many other nice things. Yet the movie I saw was a queasy blend of ebullience and masochism.
Set in Russia in 1936, when the Great Revolution was poised on the brink of tragedy, Nikita Mikhalkov's film draws parallels between the potential dissolution of a family and the imminent dissolution of society as Russians knew it. The hero, played by Mikhalkov himself, is a revered revolutionary figure who watches his ideals turn to ash. The political struggle he's devoted to is becoming cruel and paranoid; his beloved wife and daughter are enthralled by the wife's ex-boyfriend, who returns from government service as a skunky informer.
None of this is uninteresting, but Mikhalkov is too insistent a director, an old-world version of Oliver Stone. (Maybe that's why his movie won the Oscar instead of the more deserving Eat Drink Man Woman.) The emotions are overbearing and messy; the motifs (a title song, a fireball, recurring menacing images of water) are overbearing and neat. Some critics enjoy Burnt by the Sun precisely because of its bearish obviousness (Mikhalkov's best-known previous movie, Dark Eyes, was similarly praised), but I found the film bullying in a self-pitying, nostalgic way. (An American film attempting the same excesses would invite airborne tomatoes.) After a while, I began to long for the cool formalism of a Kubrick or a Greenaway; I have an aversion to life-affirming movies that remind me of burly, cologned guys with hearty laughs and firm handshakes.
And I was mildly embarrassed for Mikhalkov, who doesn't seem to know he has written himself an excruciatingly self-aggrandizing role. This lusty, awe-inspiring hero would be a pain even if he weren't played by the director: I mean, the man jumps onto a magnificent black stallion and challenges tanks, for Christ's sake. Mikhalkov's real-life daughter Nadia, who plays his daughter in the movie, is a charming little actress, but my enjoyment of the father-daughter scenes was marred by my skepticism about Mikhalkov's motives. Mikhalkov shows off his limitless, effusive adoration of Nadia in this movie the way he did on Oscar night, when he wore her on his shoulder as a sort of family-values epaulet.
Over and over, Burnt by the Sun makes the same unremarkable point: A comfortable, bourgeois way of life is collapsing into frightening chaos, in the name of a revolution that was supposed to make life even more comfortable. The family bickers and plays soccer and dances and bickers some more, either denying or just plain ignorant of the changes looming on the horizon, and it's all synthetically poignant. Except for the father and daughter, the characters are blurry caricatures of Russian emotionalism and fussiness. That, I think, is why I left the theater wondering why the film hadn't moved me more than it had. Like many another Oscar winner, Burnt by the Sun tries to knock you flat with a one-two combo of shamelessness and good intentions. The material was promising enough. I longed for a movie that wouldn't breathe vodka fumes in my face, that would simply back off and give me room to feel something.