Suchandrika Chakrabarti

This Russian-French movie won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1995, but is only being released on DVD in the UK this month. Burnt by the Sun is set in Russia in 1936. Stalin has been in power for almost a decade. Colonel Sergei Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov, also directing and co-writing) is living the good life in his dacha with his much younger wife, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), and their adorable six-year-old daughter, Nadia (Nadezhda Mikhalkov, acting opposite her real father).

Kotov is a medalled veteran of the1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War, which ended in 1923. He has the number of Stalin's private line, and is respected by everyone who lives near his dacha. It would seem that this hero's comfortable life is unassailable. The cinematography captures the lush, summery colours of the scenery around the house and the slightly faded, but still fine hues of the clothes that Kotov's wife's once-aristocratic extended family wear. It's all dancing round the piano, sitting down to meals and playing with little Nadia. Also, despite the age gap, Kotov and his wife seem to truly be in love.

However, the threat to this carefree idyll comes – in the form of Marusya's ex-lover and Kotov's ex-subordinate. Mitya, played by long-time Mikhalkov collaborator, Oleg Menshikov, turns up and charms his way back into the household. Despite his easy way with Nadia, there's something up. He stares coldly at Kotov. He keeps reminding Marusya of their past. In just one day, Mitya destroys everything that Kotov has built up. In Stalin's Russia, it seems, not even the war hero of olden times is safe from the Great Purge. Yet Kotov is not entirely innocent either – his past actions cost Mitya years of his life.

From this plot outline, you might think that there is no one to sympathise with in the film. You'd be wrong. Mikhalkov's film presents us with rounded characters, flaws and all, with whom we can't help but empathise. Gradually those flaws appear larger and less forgivable, although the lack of choice involved is always apparent.

Burnt by the Sun is slow-moving, which makes Kotov's sudden realisation of his vulnerability at the end all the more shocking and disorientating. Mitya has been working for the Secret Police, and his mission at Kotov's house was partly on orders from Stalin and partly out of a need for revenge.

The swiftness with which the pleasant domesticity of the dacha becomes a desperate situation is unnerving, but it is an effective way of conveying the all-pervasive, if sometimes successfully hidden, fear that must have affected everyone under Stalin's rule. Sometimes this is made painfully obvious by some of the imagery, such as a surreal, laser-like sun burning its way across the countryside and into the dacha, and a giant Stalin poster unfolding from a hot-air balloon. However, these moments are few and far between. It is the way that the "happy family" atmosphere of the dacha seems to ignore its historical context that adds to the tension of Mitya's return and secret purpose. The contrast between the old way of life and the uncertain, violent future brought about by Stalin's orders is what makes this film unforgettable.

The destinies of the main characters are only revealed to us in written postscripts onscreen at the end. They suffer the worst fates of all – the pardons that come too late.