This was a tough, competitive year for potential Oscar nominees for the best foreign-language film – even if Red was eliminated from the running for ridiculous reasons. But now that the Oscar-winner has finally arrived in town, it's easy to see why Burnt By the Sun walked off with the award.
Nikita Mikhalkov, who co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in Burnt By the Sun, has created a most impressive achievement with this story of love, loyalty and deception, taking the film in surprising directions and accomplishing a highly entertaining character study while offering a heartfelt political message. And his talent has obviously been inherited by his young daughter Nadia, who costars here and handily steals every scene she's in. (If you saw the Oscar broadcast last March you may recall that when Mikhalkov accepted his award at the podium, he hoisted up his daughter to let her hold the statuette aloft.)
In the first third, the film resembles Ingmar Bergman's light comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (remade as the musical A Little Night Music and reworked as Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), as a close-knit family comes together with friends for a summer Sunday in 1936. (Though perhaps Chekov would be a more appropriate comparison, particularly Uncle Vanya.) Mikhalkov is Sergei Kotov, a famous military hero of the Bolshevik revolution. He is married to much-younger Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), to whom he is devoted, and dotes on his energetic 6-year-old daughter Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov). We are immediately introduced to Kotov's reputation and the level of his power as he saves his neighbors' wheat crop by re-directing military maneuvers, as tanks threaten to trample the fields. "My only day off," he grumbles, though he clearly enjoys being able to show off.
After he returns to their country home, everyone is having a nice, relaxing time when suddenly Mitya (Oleg Menshikov) shows up, a charming young man who is revealed to have been Marusya's former lover. For this middle third, Mitya is a lighthearted scoundrel who seems bent on winning Marusya back. But he gradually becomes a more mysterious and ominous figure, whose motives for being there are not completely clear (although they are hinted at in the film's prologue). Then, in the final third, the film goes off in yet another direction, as motivations are revealed and the story veers toward tragedy.
A deeply moving mix of comedy and drama, Burnt By the Sun is replete with rich characters, all very well performed (though Mikhalkov and his daughter are especially ingratiating), and Mikhalkov's eye for lyrical visual imagery is delightful. His screenplay also takes some freewheeling satirical pokes at Russian history and society before it becomes more serious and comments on the deadly purges of Stalin's regime in the ‘30s. The results make for an enormously satisfying film.