This morning I finally had the chance to watch the sequel to Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun. Apparently the relative dearth of reviews of this film in the printed press up until now has something to do with the fact that, according to theatre and film critic Ksenia Larina, a number of illustrious critics out of Nikita Sergeyevich's favour (Viktor Matizen, Lidiya Maslova, Yuri Bogomolov, Larisa Maliukova, Leonid Pavliuchik) were not invited to the pompous premiere at the Kremlin on the 17th April. Well, there is a lot to be said about the film (but little of it for the film), but after my first viewing there was little doubt that this film is represented perfectly well by the poster above. If Russians love to discover the "cranberries" (absurd myths and obvious inaccuracies) in foreign films about Russia, here they have the head cranberry sower right in their midst.
This was no "Great Film about the Great War" (as the pre-film publicity and official poster argued) but a film so full of cringe-inducing moments that Larina was spot on to call it a "great deception". The budget of $65 million (the highest ever spent on a Russian film) must be seen in the context of a country which sells off its Cinema Museums to strip club and casino owners and denies some excellent art house film producers any hope of state funding.
The three-hour sequel was a morass of episodes without structure. There were salvageable scenes (the battle scene with the young elite corps and the penal battaglio was not wholly without merit and the acting of Yevgeny Mironov was generally fine), but those moments where one actually wished to follow the events were probably outweighed by moments of outrage. Outrage at the misuse of Gherman and Klimov quotes, outrage at the scenes where one was being overtly indoctrinated with religious twaddle, outrage at historical and narrative inaccuracies which were not subtle but continuous to the point of nausea, outrage at the attempt to copy Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan when it was Spielberg himself who was imitating Klimov's Come and See – the best film about World War Two (and the best film about this subject that will probably ever be made). Outrage that Mikhalkov's film drags Klimov's scene of a burning hut into a sickening (and Trofimenkov is right to use the term) an almost "pornographic" parody. Well, the criticisms that one may make about the film are pretty endless (the very resurrection of the characters in the first place is, of course, a further complaint that one may have about tampering with narrative continuity).
The film fails on many levels: it fails as myth, it fails as historical reconstruction, it fails as sequel, it fails as war film and as some commentators have pointed out it almost only succeeds as a loose string of comic-like episodes, but the element of lubochnost is only really there as a sum of the negative connotations of the word in Russian: after all, Mikhalkov is no Medvedkin.
Who indeed has Mikhalkov become? The Mikhalkov of An Unfinished Piece..., of Five Evenings? Mikhalkov has, it seems, progressively become an unhappy melange: Americanitis (or Hollywooditis) without the Kuleshov touch. It justifiably will all end in tears and in this film there is nothing more irritating than the fake tears that Mikhalkov and his daughter endlessly dish up for us. It reaches the point where it is not even bad sentimentalism but a clueless regurgitation of clichés from other works, including his own (the gypsy scene is truly awful – what gypsy would start dancing after witnessing her whole family being gunned down?).
It is not just that there is no belief amongst the acting troupe (as Andrei Arkhangelsky notes) but that this film really has been encapsulated perfectly by the critic Mikhail Trofimenkov – this is pornography in the widest sense of the word and of the worst kind. A national patriotic pornography that even Khotinenko couldn't quite manage in his Priest and which is a final insult to the brave veterans of the Soviet army (for reducing the courage of a whole generation to this pulp fiction). In fact, the comments of veterans invited to the launch were often damning – one complained that Mikhalkov had spat in their faces with this dire film.
P.S. Apart from one's first reaction of sheer horror of what Mikhalkov has done with $65 million and how a war film has been reduced to a film-comic, there are probably a whole new series of considerations. It would be interesting to find out what two hours of this film were preserved for the Cannes Festival and how Cannes actually accepted it for the main competition. Interesting to see the reaction of some of Mikhalkov's allies like Nikolai Burlyayev (a national patriot like Mikhalkov, but the film can hardly be to his taste). But then there have been people speaking up for the film – Tatiana Moskvina has been one of them. She emphasized that Mikhalkov was a "synthetic" artist; and on the day of the showing Shakhnazarov also talked of it being a "great film", but then he is the one who suggested to Mikhalkov at last years farcical Cinematographers' Congress at Gostinny Dvor to return to the Presidency of the Filmmakers' Union. Another article has appeared in today's Moscow Times suggesting that the reception at the Kremlin showing was pretty muted. It highlights the Trofimenkov review which really manages to be both funny and a brilliant and well-directed rant. Lidiya Maslova's (one of the critics banned from the Kremlin showing) is finally out in today's Kommersant; she suggests that the film is a version of the afterlife of the characters in hell. Mikhalkov in an interview in Izvestiya last week stated that the style of the film was hyper-realist. As this denomination usually pertains to the films of Aleksei Gherman Sr., this appears to be one of the biggest mistatements of all.