Don Houston

Fans of historical drama have long appreciated large events brought home into smaller, more personal doses that allow us to understand the bigger picture by way of how events impact the family. In one such film, the Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun, we get to see how a hero of the Russian Revolution and his family deal with the changing political winds of fate during Stalin's Purges of the mid 1930's. Surprisingly interesting in scope, the movie was directed by lead Nikita Mikhalkov (who cast his lovely daughter as his character's daughter) and won the Oscar over a host of other solid choices in 1995.

The movie is set in 1936 Soviet Union, just prior to the world plunging into WWII. A retired military leader of the Russian Revolution and personal friend of Stalin, Comrade Kotov lives the good life in a nice home with his family, in-laws, and servants – all of whom are quite quirky. Life couldn't be better for most of them, at least on the surface, and the cares of the country are far away from this group of people. The locals respect Kotov, who still merits the fear of the military officials, who all know his legendary heroism and close ties to the country's leader. Along comes a stranger, Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), who turns out to be the former love of Kotov's wife (and former opponent of his during the revolution), back from being in exile around the world, with an air of superiority. It's plain to Kotov that his visit means trouble. How much trouble remains to be seen.

Those unfamiliar with history should note that while in power, Stalin was thought to have killed more of his countrymen than Hitler's armies – estimates range upwards of 20 million or more. Whether by firing squad, starvation, or being sent off to desolate areas of the country where they wouldn't be a threat, an awful lot of people found the supposed "new deal" of Communism to be just one more power play by those in charge. In this account, Kotov finds that his ties and charisma mean little to an ungrateful ruling caste, even though the man is as loyal to the ideals of the revolution as anyone else – if not more so. By holding faith in his ideals, he becomes a target of the paranoid rulers who see any possible threat as not worth taking – sowing the seeds for decades of endless abuses by the governmental leaders against the people whom they supposedly fought to protect from the Czar's royalty system.

The movie did pace itself rather slowly at first, letting the viewer appreciate the life of this retired man and his family. It quickly changes gears to show a much darker side of life, particularly the confrontation between Kotov and Mitya where the retired hero pointedly rebukes his adversary, letting him know that his past of cowardice is not forgotten. As the now-in-favor Mitya replies, the past is no longer important and nothing will change the inevitable outcome. Will Kotov's ties win out over Mitya's position or will he find himself in disfavor? Historians know the answer, as will most who take the time to watch this drama unfold; but the trip is well worth the price of admission, even knowing the ending in advance.

I really liked this one. From the acting (Nadia Mikhalkov stole the show more often than not), to the story, to the subtle (and not so subtle) foreshadowing and symbolism employed, I thought a lot of thought went into this movie. Apparently so did a lot of Russians, since they elected the director/star to political office shortly after the movie won the Oscar. The movie is a powerful testament to political realities as much as the historical lessons to be learned from a time when the world seemed to make little sense.

So, if the movie was so great and the acting was so solid, why do I rate it as only "Highly Recommended"? The movie could have edited out some of the extraneous material with ease and not lost a single bit of its strength, or it could have explained some of the details involved in some of the scenes (meanings and symbolism don't always translate well to foreign audiences), or both. In all, it has a few flaws, but it's easy to recommend to fans of such dramas as a starting point to learn more about Stalin's past as seen through the eyes of a family directly impacted by the events of so long ago.

...In times like these, when our own government seems, sometimes at least, to be following down a similar path of purging suspected foes and/or opponents, movies like Burnt by the Sun seem all the more relevant to remind us all about such themes as loyalty, political realities, and the need for questions to be asked (without fear of reprisal) in order for our freedoms to remain intact.