Col. Sergei Petrovich Kotov ought to be dead. We were told he was about to be executed as part of Stalin's purge at the end of Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun. The Communist dictator assumed as much himself, which is why he is so out of sorts to discover Kotov yet lives in Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun 2. Exodus, the second film of his projected trilogy, which screened during the 2010 Russian Film Week in New York.
One typically miserable day in the GULAG, Kotov is dismayed to discover his Article 58 political conviction has been reclassified to a pedestrian criminal charge. Moments later, the political inmates are summarily executed and the remaining prisoners are evacuated. The Germans have attacked, offering Kotov an opportunity for salvation. Before you can say "Great Patriotic War" he has enlisted in a special penal company, tenaciously fighting on the frontline as a lowly private.
Of course, that cuts no ice with Stalin. When he purges someone, it is meant to be permanent. With a war raging, he summons NKVD Colonel Mitya Arsentyev to track him down and finish the job, setting in motion the Communist version of Saving Private Ryan. It is an assignment that hits close to home for Arsentyev, given his long history with Kotov. Estranged comrades, Arsentyev married Kotov's wife and adopted his daughter after arresting the war hero on Stalin's orders. However, Kotov is the only father Nadia Kotova will ever acknowledge. In true Zhivagan fashion, they will both brave the horrors of war in hopes of reuniting.
It is hard to know where to start with Exodus, perhaps because there is so much of it: nearly three hours plus a teaser of the next installment to come. It certainly captures the spirit of the age, boldly portraying Stalin not just as an autocrat, but a legitimate psychopath. Yet, Mikhalkov's well known status as Russia's more-or-less film czar and notorious FOP (friend of Putin) adds a layer of irony to his blistering critique of Stalinism. After all, who would he consider the film's closest analog to Russia's current thug-in-chief (and former KGB officer)?
Burnt 2 is at its best when depicting the chaos and degradation of war, unnecessarily aggravated by Stalin's policies. Ironically, Mikhalkov's carte blanche did not always serve the best interests of the film. Case in point, the overorchestrated score veers close to parody. Still, there are times when Mikhalkov goes for broke and pulls it off, as when a dying priest baptizes Kotova while they cling to an exploded mine bobbing in open water.
In truth, Mikhalkov's lead performance as the disillusioned Kotov is quite good, but casting himself as a Russian paragon of fatherhood and fatherland gives his critics something else to key in on. However, his supporting cast is a more mixed bag. Subtle and thoughtful, Oleg Menshikov is fantastic as the former White partisan turned Red enforcer. Sergei Garmash also shines (far too briefly) as the compassionate priest, Aleksandr. However, many of the assorted prisoners and military characters are portrayed with a distracting theatricality.
Regardless of Mikhalkov's vociferous critics and his rather unsettling Slavic nationalism, Burnt 2 is a big film by nearly any measure, well worth seeing. It is hard not to get caught up in this sort of sweeping historical epic, with its liberal helpings of melodrama. His critique of the Stalinist era is also quite trenchant, which why it is so frustrating he is unable to apply the same rigorous standards to the Putin regime. Indeed, it was definitely the most talked about selection of Russian Film Week, which concludes tonight (12/9) in New York.