After its resounding thumbs-down on Sunday from the Cannes Film Festival jurors, who awarded it a grand nothing, Nikita Mikhalkov's epic Burnt by the Sun 2 may finally recede into the cultural background. But I wouldn't bet on it. Let's review...
From day one everything about the movie was outsized: the budget, the shooting schedule, the ad campaign, the running time, the big-name cast – and, of course, the director himself, whose public persona before, during and after shooting fairly defined the phrase "excessive self-seriousness".
So when reactions to the film's first publicity spots also went over the top – a barrage of name-calling and PhotoShop parodies from Runet bloggers, followed by reports that Mikhalkov was threatening to sue the most brazen image-doodlers – no one should have been surprised.
I sure wasn't. In sending his long-awaited film out the chute as "Velikoye kino o velikoi voine" ("A great film about the great war"), Mikhalkov was doing the publicist's equivalent of what boxers call "leading with your chin" – and was duly clobbered for it.
The excess-fest continued with tepid-to-scathing notices (including "the biggest fraud in the history of Russian filmmaking") and a Duma deputy asking awkward questions about the state monies sunk into the massive cash-consuming project, prompting the director to respond with a printable version of "Go [bleep] yourself". This week Mikhalkov confronts the nation from the cover of TV Park, whose opulent six-page spread on Burnt 2 looks remarkably, er, made-to-order.
Does anyone really think this epic-outside-the-epic is over? Come on, we're only six months away from the opening pie-throwing at the sequel to the sequel (Citadel). At some point, however, you have to stop gawking at the public spectacle of Nikita Sergeyevich getting Burnt 2 a Crisp – however deservedly – and deal soberly with his actual movie. And let's face it, there's a lot to deal with.
If Burnt by the Sun 2 fails as a coherent epic (or even the first half of one), consider it as a series of set-piece sequences – some of which are very effective and affecting, including:
* The odd squad. An incongruously mismatched Russian force – a punishment battalion of grizzled veterans and an elite unit of young Kremlin cadets, looking much like a lost Soviet Boy Scout troop – comes together under a hard-bitten lieutenant (wonderfully conjured by Yevgeny Mironov) for a tank/infantry encounter that skillfully mixes humour, terror and pathos amid impressive battle choreography.
* Two mass evacuation scenes – the crossing/destruction of a bridge and the bombing of a boat carrying refugees and wounded – are enormously striking, for both their extravagant cinematography and graphic, nobody-gets-out-of-this-hell-unscathed message. This is what's called "putting the money on the screen" (Duma take note), and it doesn't just happen.
* A German-atrocity sequence – first a small-group killing, then a village-sized massacre – is disturbingly well-rendered, managing both to personalise various of the Germans involved (evil isn't faceless) and acutely pose the dilemma of resistance as no Russian war film has: if great numbers of innocent people die for your justifiable actions, were the actions really justified?
* The closing scene, between a mortally wounded tank gunner and a field nurse, likewise brings a deftly humanising touch to the genre. The dying gunner asks the nurse not how the battle ended or to write his family but... to bare her breasts – because "I never got to see any". Viewers unaffected by this moment, which closes with a spectacular fade-up, may need to check their wrists for a pulse.
No, not all of the set pieces are this good. The Kotov-in-the-GULAG sequence never gels; the Stalin-Beria interludes reflect caricature more than menace; and the intra-SMERSH investigation is so obvious and laboured you can almost hear it shouting Plot Device.
But if your brainpan can dismiss expectations born of the taut and efficient Burnt 1, it will appreciate what this three-hour cine-mosaic really offers: unconnected sequences of bravura filmmaking, many of which may appear in a re-edited Burnt by the Sun triptych that will become a fine addition to Russia's cinematic history of the army purges and the war.
And at that point Mikhalkov may finally step out of his long-running role as the Russian film industry's public punching bag. Despite all the bluster, I'll bet he can't wait.