This film, starring and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1995. It explores the onset of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union in 1936, when Stalin, consolidating his power, began the first of his nightmarish purges.
Foreign films aren't for everyone, but this one is beautifully shot and acted, and the English version is well-subtitled and moves quickly enough to be interesting but not so fast you can't follow it. Aficionados of foreign movies trying to convince their mates they're not tedious might start with this one. Knowing Russian history helps but isn't essential – it's enough to know that the Russian Revolution was messier than most people think, with multiple warring factions, including the moderate "Whites" and extremist "Reds."
And the movie has tanks – early on, at that. Not bleak, human-spirit-crushed-by-the-weight-of-the-world's-evil-in-a-nihilist-movie tanks, but badass tanks chewing up a wheatfield while babushkas shout at them comedically.
Mikhalkov plays Col. Sergei Kotov, a bluff and genial hero of the Bolshevik revolution. Kotov and his family, including his wife Marusya and precocious daughter Nadia (played by Mikhalkov's own daughter, Nadezhda), are enjoying a day off at their riverside dacha when Mitya, a long-absent friend of the family (and Marusya's former lover) makes a flamboyant reappearance. Mitya has been serving the revolution abroad for many years. He's back, just briefly, to do a little job for Comrade Stalin. He loves the dacha and the carefree life it represents, and the task he's been assigned causes him tremendous pain.
The film, which Mikhalkov dedicated to "all those burnt by the sun of revolution," examines how lone people's agendas and motives can be twisted and used by a brutal state. Kotov and Mitya, both loyal servants of the revolution doing what they think is right, have a personal rivalry that helps them follow orders neither of them wholly trusts. The revolution betrays them both in the end.
Burnt by the Sun is also fascinating as an artifact of political anthropology. When it was released, people in Russia were only beginning to look at Communist history with critical eyes. Decades of repression had made it easy to deny provable historical truths, and the shocks of the transition to democracy made some people, the ones you see bearing portraits of Stalin at rallies and protests, long for the good old days, when at least there was stability.
Mikhalkov's own politics can't be ignored here. He grew up in a family of painters and writers supported and approved of by the Soviet state (his father, Sergei, wrote the words to the Soviet national anthem). All the same, his film doesn't flinch from showing that the stability was an illusion.
Burnt by the Sun warns against excoriating the past just for being the past. After the film was released, Mikhalkov did interviews in which he said one of the Russian Revolution's great failures was its ferocious hatred of all that had gone before – it "burned too hot," he said – and he worried that Russia's modern revolution would make the same mistake.
The film offers insight into Russia's political and artistic culture, about which most Westerners don't know enough, and into the human knack for committing evil with the best of intentions.