A complex tale of war from a complex and controversial figure
Certain of my colleagues believe that one must have had one's brain cells burnt by the sun to: 1) honour a new film by Nikita Mikhalkov with one's presence; and 2) actually enjoy said film in the event one sat before a screen where the florid, implausible but entertaining saga of Burnt by the Sun 2 happened to be projected.
Personally, I don't think that choosing to watch a film is the moral equivalent of lavishing one's tourist dollar on a junta-ruled province – but the notion that it's just plain wrong to watch, let alone endorse, any recent work from Russian writer-director-actor-producer Nikita Mikhalkov has apparently caught on in some quarters.
Mikhalkov seems to be as gifted at making enemies as he is at filmmaking. At his Cannes press conference, the director gave what sounded (at least in translation) like reasonable replies (several of which you'll find quoted here). But while it can be illuminating to hear a filmmaker speak about his work in person, ideally a movie should speak for itself. Mikhalvov's new film speaks, shouts, bellows, hits viewers over the head, cajoles, dazzles and bulldozes them. Some viewers claim to have been bored by the cumulative effect of so many clichés. But war IS hell. The director wants to be really, really sure that you don't cling to a single romantic notion about the true nature of war – while feeling free to reinforce any romantic notions you may entertain about love of family.
In this sequel to his Oscar-winning 1994 film Burnt by the Sun, Mikhalkov returns as Red Army colonel Kotov. Kotov should be dead but this just goes to show you shouldn't believe everything you read on screen at the end of award-winning films about Soviet internal manoeuvring in the mid-1930s. For Kotov has survived and in 1941 is an inmate at a miserable labor camp with the prospect of death-by-firing-squad a constant threat. The very day Kotov learns of his reclassification by the Soviet bureaucracy (he was interned under article 58 but now he's under article 129 – go figure), the camp is attacked by German fighter planes. What can I say? THIS is filmmaking. Planes swoop overhead, bombs and bullets do their nasty work, men scatter and Kotov not only survives but escapes.
To say that difficult circumstances await would be an understatement on the order of suggesting that Stalin was not a nice man.
Mikhalkov's latest extravaganza takes place in 1941 AND in 1943, the two years shuffled like a deck of playing cards. For numbers mavens, Burnt 2 is reportedly the most expensive Russian film ever made. There are lots and lots of costumed extras and a heady array of terrifically filmed set-pieces, all intent on reminding the youth of today's ex-USSR just how much sacrifice Mother Russia endured in the fighting of WWII.
Mikhalkov says he was inspired by Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a film he likes and admires. But Mikhalkov realised that the American director did such a convincing job that young people bought the implied notion that the Yanks almost single-handedly won the war. (As an aside, I was at the Deauville Festival of American Film – which takes place in Normandy, not all that far from the Allied landing beaches – when Spielberg previewedSaving Private Ryan. At the film's press conference, a substantial number of French journalists felt compelled to point out that, ahem, the Yanks didn't single-handedly win the war.)
So, it's 1941 and Kotov escapes, only to end up as a rank and file soldier.
The action cuts to Stalin's datcha. It's 1943, Stalin wants Kotov found and who better to track him down than no-nonsense Major Arsentyev (Oleg Menshikov), the same really scary KGB official who ruined Kotov's idyll with his family in the original Burnt.
Russia, as you may have heard, is a big place. Which is why only in the movies could we hold out hope that Kotov will be reunited with his wife and daughter when he assumes that both women are dead. Daughter Nadia (played in both films by the director's real-life daughter, Nadezhda Mikhalkova) is not only alive but, in her capacity as a nurse, is part of some visually thrilling set-pieces in which people and things are blown to smithereens. Nadia clings to a giant mine as it drifts in open waters. She doesn't look quite as bedraggled as she should, but with irony as her co-pilot, one adventure leads to another.
Oh, yeah – not only is Nadia's mother still alive, but she's now wed to Kotov's arch-enemy, Arsentyev (hey, it could happen).
On June 26, 1941 people flee on foot. The filmic energy employed as the desperate pedestrians are urged to evacuate a bridge that's in danger of being blown up RIGHT NOW is impressive. Who do you believe in an emergency? Do you stay on the bridge or turn back? (Do you get the hell out of the World Trade Center or do you return to your desk?)
American WWII vet and filmmaker Sam Fuller said that few soldiers just slump over when killed in combat, although that's how the movies portray death in uniform. Fuller emphasised that the dead are often blown apart, with body parts scattered all over the place. Mikhalkov makes excellent use of this inconvenient truth in a scene involving ticking timepieces in the aftermath of a memorably mismatched encounter. (Don't you just hate it when the trenches of what you think are your front line turn out to be facing the wrong way?)
Not only is Russia a big place, but you may have heard that it gets really cold there. In a brief but beautiful scene a blanket of snow has the last word.
The only false note, as it were, is the music. Yes, the tale takes silly liberties that will disqualify it for some viewers. But the scope of the filmmaking holds its rewards for those not tallying the "hey-wait-a-minute" moments with too much zeal.
Saying this film is pro-Stalin (one of the accusations levelled against it) makes a much sense as contending that Barack Obama is a fan of the collected literary works of Sarah Palin.
Burnt by the Sun 2 concludes with the words "End of Part II". There is a third installment.