Burnt by the Sun, which won the Oscar for the best foreign-language film, is old-fashioned, 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.
The story of a family and a people – it's about the scorching all too many suffered from the rising sun of socialism – the movie's a constant, rich tapestry of Chekhovian and Bergman-esque family life. It's also suffused with Mikhalkov's customary sense of irony and political symbolism. With a running time of 134 minutes, and with no flagging of details or energy, Sun makes great demands on that rapidly diminishing commodity – the American attention span. But with sustained concentration, the experience is ultimately rewarding.
Colonel Kotov (played by Mikhalkov) is a legendary figure in the 1917 revolution. In 1936, as Stalin's purges are gathering momentum, the mustachioed officer has retired to the country with his attractive, much younger wife Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte) and precocious 6-year-old daughter Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov – the director's own daughter whom he slung famously over his shoulder at the Academy Awards). Kotov's serene life is destroyed when Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), an old flame of Marusya's, makes an unexpected visit – this after a considerable absence. Marusya, who married Kotov after giving up hope of Mitya's return, is confused about her feelings toward him. Mitya is a charmer, who captivates Kotov's daughter and clearly still has sway over Marusya's feelings. Little by little, the young man's real agenda becomes apparent and Kotov, a salt of the earth who believes in his country and Stalin, learns that his glorious achievements of the past mean little in the new political climate.
Mikhalkov, who also made Dark Eyes, is occasionally guilty of overwrought symbolism. Socialist builders, for instance, are erecting a barrage balloon carrying a banner of Stalin, which is obviously timed to rise before our eyes in all its empty puffery right at the end. Sun could also have stood half an hour of editing. But it's masterfully directed throughout, from the lyrical sunniness of a family picnic early in the story to the final, gripping sequences. The most touching element of all is the relationship between fictional (and real-life) father and daughter. The Mikhalkovs work together like Astaire and Rogers. He's a life-affirming Zorba the walrus, she's a delicate angel perched on his back. In her face, the movie memorably invests its doomed innocence and faith.