The San Francisco Chronicle
Leah Garchik

Burnt by the Sun is dreamy, luscious and lyrical, a light-drenched day in the country; it's also a bone-rattling drama of betrayal and mayhem. The revolutionary sun blazes on the Soviet Union of revolutionary son Josef Stalin, and in Nikita Mikhalkov's view, even the zealots are blistered. American Cold Warriors will find it easy to admire this engrossing and ultimately horrifying condemnation of the Stalinist regime, but for Russians, the director's answer to complex historical questions may seem oversimplified. Was Stalin's blood-soaked tyranny an anomaly or the natural result of Lenin's violent revolution? Were the Red heroes of the Revolution free of blame for the millions who died in the purges that came later?

Mikhalkov, who co-wrote the screenplay, directed and starred in this Oscar-winning movie, plays the Bolshevik revolutionary hero Kotov. He's respected by his countrymen for his role in the Revolution, and beloved by his beautiful young wife, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), their adorable 6-year-old daughter, Nadia (played by Mikhalkov's own 6-year-old daughter, Nadia), and the aristocratic Chekhovian family that frolics around the country estate – a collection of aunts, uncles and cousins constantly gathering around the piano or the dining table for merriment or meals. The story is told in a single day, which begins with the arrival of Dmitry (Oleg Menshikov), a former poet and musician who was Marusya's lover before her marriage. Dmitry, welcomed as a favorite, captivates the household with teasing, music and gaiety.

Fragile Picture

But the music is too loud, the dancing too wild, and the viewer senses that somehow the visitor's presence is going to spoil the idyllic picture. When Nadia demands a story and Dmitry tells a wrenching parable about a young man called away from his lover to serve his country, the tale darkens, and the "blame" seems to fall on Kotov, agent of the Revolution.

As the day progresses and the sun moves overhead, searing the landscape, the focus of the story shifts from the personal to the political, and the heroes and villains reverse themselves. Hazy clues waft through the summer air, but it takes most of the movie before the denouement becomes clear.

In pointing such an unwavering finger of blame at Stalin and his minions, the director exonerates the Bolsheviks from any blame for the bloodshed that occurred after the Revolution. This is a somewhat fine point that may not matter to most American viewers – to whom the secret police, Josef Stalin and the Communist regime are virtually synonymous – but is highly debatable among politically minded (virtually all) Russians.

Relationship with Daughter

Burnt by the Sun is much more, however, than a political tract. Oscar aficionados who watched Mikhalkov accept his award for best foreign film with his little girl in tow were entranced by the image of the bear-like papa beaming at his shiny-faced daughter. And Kotov's enchantment with his Nadia is at the heart of this movie. The image of the little girl and her father declaring their mutual love as they glide down the river on a lazy afternoon is an embodiment of pure familial affection, of the good that can be suffocated by the crush of political ideology. It's the strongest image in the movie, the scene most viewers will remember the longest, and that's just the way Mikhalkov must have planned it. Family first and family last, love before violence.