Burnt by the Sun is a highly effective movie – but more so if the viewer is familiar with 20th-century Russian history. While major historical events do not come into play in the story, personal displays of power, acts of vengeance, the divide between the hardcore Soviet devotees and those who saw their lives change for the worse after the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for survival by anyone who was pegged as a threat to the regime, are illustrated through the characters' roles.
Colonel Kotov, a renowned patriot and military leader, seems to live an idyllic existence with his young wife Marusya, charming daughter, and comfortable house in the countryside. The appearance of Mitya, a cousin of his wife, seems to shake him, but the viewer believes that it is only due to Mitya's past romantic relationship with Marusya. The tension increases as the truth is revealed.
Kotov's unshakeable dedication to the "Motherland" and Mitya's desperate attempt to make right past wrongs show a side of Stalinist Russia that doesn't come out clearly in history books. The human facets of the two characters is present and touching, and aids the viewer in seeing these two as sympathetic characters rather than a strictly defined hero-villain pair.
Burnt by the Sun is ultimately tragic. However, the tragedy in the film can be felt more deeply when held against the backdrop of Russian history. Is Kotov's fate more tragic than Mitya's past? Is the recourse one man takes against another more tragic than both? Was the Revolution, in how it affected humanity in general, more tragic than this one instance of retribution? Is the waste and loss of the lives of innocent bystanders even more tragic?
Burnt by the Sun is a must-see movie for any student of Russian history. It is widely shown in university Russian-language or history classes, but personally, I think it's best watched at home, where the full impact of the message can be absorbed privately... where you don't have to hide the stunned or disgusted expression on your face when the movie ends.