Mike Restaino

Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun is a heartbreaking movie, one of staggering symbolic power even if it isn't perfect. Its broad emotional strokes make it impossible to avoid, like a cinematic freight train careening off the tracks. Yet there is also something hollow about its narrative aims.

Of course, seeing as the film is about Stalin and the Russian revolution, it seems imperative that the film would have a hollowness to its core: the film's very title involves a people both passionate about and frustrated with the actions of their countrymen, "burnt by the sun of revolution." But even while the picture succeeds in painting a devastating societal climate, this writer found there to be very few empathetic through-lines to the film. I simply felt like an outsider to the narrative – the fact that it can't seal the deal and make the jump from admirable period piece to exemplary cinematic art left me a tad disappointed.

The acting here is certainly extraordinary – director Mikhalkov is also the star – and the film's sense of mood is quite evocative and refreshing. The movie's first act is its most invaluable asset. Mikhalkov doesn't let his story get leaden with historical representation, nor does he allow for melodrama to replace authenticity: he's able to expertly intertwine the emotional interactions in a small family with the impending doom of Russia at large with striking prowess.

There's one scene in particular, where Mikhalkov's daughter rubs his back as light pours into a small cabin, that really jumped off the screen for me: we all know that the shit is about to hit the fan outside, but as this Revolution hero smiles and jokes as he stares at his beautiful wife and daughter, the film truly transcends mere political or romantic drama – it's able to expertly leverage the doom on its narrative horizon with the intimacy of this loving family. The result is marvelous.

Alas, the rest of the film doesn't share the same kind of wondrous duality, and that undermines it. Mikhalkov is able to pull off such a notable dichotomy in certain scenes that while the rest of the picture ends up being "merely" above-average, it is flaccid and uninvolving by comparison. Still, Burnt by the Sun stands heads and shoulders above most other political fare and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1994. A lack of a clean and clear consistency makes it somewhat of a frustrating beast, all the more a shame since it has all the elements of a true classic – marvelous performances, an excellent directorial prowess and involving source material. Still well worth checking out, though.