Bottom Line: The eastern front of WWII becomes the setting for unsettling dark comedy in this epic Russian war movie
CANNES – Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun 2. Exodus arrived in Cannes carrying excess baggage. The first Burnt by the Sun, a portrayal of the Stalinist-era Soviet Union, won the Festival's grand prize in 1994 along with an Oscar for best foreign-language film, thus raising expectations. Then this sequel, reportedly the most expensive movie in Russian history, ran into box-office troubles at home. The film may eventually gross around 15 million euros, something of a disappointment, but more troubling is that Russian critics castigated the film for sticking too closely to the Kremlin's approved version of World War II and for its promotion of orthodox Christianity.
In other words, the veteran actor/director may have fallen victim to political and social changes in Russia since his first film. However, Cannes could deliver some measure of vindication for Mikhalkov. Burnt by the Sun 2 is a much, much better film than its Russian reviews would indicate.
The film hews closer in tone to Joseph Heller's darkly comic war novel Catch-22 than most war movies. Sequences of utter absurdity abound while characters suffering comically from shell shock wander in a devastated landscape of much cruelty. Brutal battles – and who lives or dies – pivot on total caprice.
One soldier wears a door on his back. It saves his life. Another soldier carries his house keys, convinced that as long as he has them his home in Minsk is safe. An elite corps of young recruits arrives at the front, all strapping men over six feet tall, only to serve as cannon fodder for Nazi tanks.
An angry German soldier machine-guns a group of gypsies who annoy him by dancing. A bomb falls into a nearly deserted hospital but hangs unexploded from a chandelier, allowing two men to scramble to safety. A survivor of a sunken Red Cross ship clings to a mine. Another ship fails to rescue her, though, because it carries the precious archives of the Communist Party.
The film does get off to an awkward start with a fantasy sequence in which a pasty-faced actor plays Stalin, who winds up with his face in a birthday cake. But when General Kotov, played once again by Mikhalkov, awakens in a prison camp, the film finds its footing in turns of events that contain such bitter irony.
Kotov, a purged Red Army general, is "liberated" by German bombers, who lay waste to his prison camp. He fights the Germans heroically, but refuses to transfer to a regular army unit because he wants to remain with his comrades and believes his wife and daughter are dead. But the daughter (played again by the director's own daughter, Nadezhda Mikhalkova) is a nurse, facing her own ordeals that radicalize her ideas about war and party loyalty.
The film stumbles when it insists on dramatizing its characters' daydreams of home and the peaceful past as momentary escapes from carnage. These are sequences that Mikhalkov, who wrote the script with Alexandr Novototski-Vlasov, Gleb Panfilov and Vladimir Moiseenko, indulges in far too often.
Much of this is narrated in flashback. In 1943, Stalin himself – in a scene almost Tarantino-esque with a subversive subtext running against the seeming banality of the conversation – orders Kotov's KGB nemesis, Major Arsentyev (Oleg Menshikov), to locate Kotov. The major's subsequent inquiries trigger the many scenes showing the dual odysseys of father and daughter to find each other in a world gone mad.
Why in the world Stalin, who in 1943 should have more urgent matters on his mind, is obsessing about a condemned officer who escaped execution, is an unresolved curiosity. This is because Exodus is the second film of a projected trilogy.
Thus, this film's abrupt ending leaves you with an unsatisfied feeling. Well, it's always good to have an audience wanting more, right? And Burnt by the Sun 3. The Citadel is currently in post with an anticipated release in early 2011.