The San Francisco Examiner
Scott Rosenberg

Russian film retells ancient story of bitter, ironic tragedy

Cincinnatus, the hero of the Roman Republic, left his farm to lead an army and defeat the enemies of the state. Then, spurning dictatorial power, he returned to his plow. It's a powerful archetype – powerful enough that 2,000 years later he got an American city named after him. Now Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov gives us a Soviet-era version of the Cincinnatus story, transformed by the force of Stalinism into bitter, ironic tragedy. The film, Burnt by the Sun, won the best foreign film Oscar this year and the grand prize at Cannes last year.

Sergei Kotov (Mikhalkov) is a hero of the Bolshevik revolution – a retired general who's trying to live out his existence peacefully in the 1930s Russian countryside with his young wife, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), and 5-year-old daughter, Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov). At the start of Burnt by the Sun, we watch this big man ride off bareback to save the local peasants' crops from the treads of army tanks on maneuvers. "It's the people's wheat!", he roars. One look at Kotov's celebrated profile and the junior commander orders an about face. Kotov, however, is about to learn that revolutions cut down their own – and that the tallest, proudest stalks are the ones that go first.

Burnt by the Sun is Mikhalkov's memorial to the Russian leaders who were convicted in "show trials" or who simply disappeared in the 1930s, as Stalin disposed of anyone, including most of the heroes of 1917, who might challenge his power. The purges left the Soviet Union in bad shape when it came time to find leaders for the defense against Hitler's invasion. The movie is also a Chekhovian evocation of an idyllic backcountry life in Russia that had barely survived into the ‘30s and that would disappear entirely in the wake of the oncoming war. Mikhalkov, whose 1976 Unfinished Piece for Player Piano is one of the great Chekhov films, knows just how to combine lyrical touches and ironic distance in recording the lives of the privileged yet doomed.

Mikhalkov himself plays Kotov as a leonine Russian soldier who no longer has a stomach for politics and who is trying to duck the demands of public life to enjoy a well-earned retirement. But his family's peace is interrupted when the long-lost Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), who had been Marusya's lover once, returns to the ancestral estate with his own agenda. What ensues is a combination love triangle and political drama, all set by Mikhalkov against a semi-absurdist backdrop: giant Stalin balloons floating across empty forests, civil-defense gas masks distributed by anxious brigades of "Pioneers," mythical fireballs zooming around the landscape, and a stray truck driver who asks directions at a tragically unlucky moment.

The greatest tragedy here is Kotov's delusion that his status as a hero of the fatherland can protect him from Stalin's hand. Even after he's been hustled off in an unmarked car from his home – and he goes with careful bravado, pretending all's well to soothe his family – he doesn't see what's happening to him. The moment at which he's forced to do so, via the casual violence of his abductors, ruptures the movie's gentility like a thunderclap.