A method for separating the good foreign-language films from the bad: The good ones make you forget you are reading subtitles. By this standard alone, the Russian movie Burnt by the Sun is a superior import. Ten minutes into the film, its tale of love and politics in the 1930s Soviet Union is so engrossing that the viewer who speaks about seven words of Russian feels suddenly fluent.
Subtitles? What subtitles? This is a movie whose plot is largely mysterious for most of the first hour, during which almost none of the dots are connected, and yet it never frustrates or drags. Though there are some flaws and gaps in the version now showing in this country – which is a half-hour shorter than the original – the film is well worth a detour from standard multiplex fare. Venturing beneath the familiar horrific history of the Stalinist period, it explores the way individual lives were actually lived under that era's totalitarianism, and how private lives intersected with public terror.
The story begins with an omen, a black car passing through Red Square early one morning in 1936. A young man (Oleg Menshikov) arrives at his apartment, converses petulantly with his French-speaking valet and displays suicidal leanings.
Next we are in the sunny Tolstoyan countryside, where the summer silence is rudely broken by the arrival of Soviet tanks and airplanes. Turns out they are on a Stalinist mission to destroy the villagers' wheat. Panic ensues until a certain local resident named Col. Kotov, a burly hero of the Revolution and friend of Stalin himself, employs his considerable prestige and charisma to halt the attack. (Kotov is played by Nikita Mikhalkov, who also wrote and directed the film.) After the contretemps, he joins his eccentric family – including a daft maid, various fey relatives, and his much younger wife and angelic daughter (the latter played by Mikhalkov's own daughter, Nadia) – in a dreamy day at the dacha. Here there are lace curtains, happy old songs played on the piano, plans for a big meal and a swim in the river, and innumerable intimations of love and contentment. It all feels like a pre-Bolshevik idyll among the high bourgeoisie, except for intermittent appearances by the local party faithful as they engage in marches, a farcical gas-attack drill, and the building of a strange balloon in honor of Comrade Stalin.
In the midst of all this, our nervous young Muscovite reappears. We learn that his name is Dmitry, and that 10 years before, he and the colonel's wife were lovers. He has returned from political exile – he fought against the Red Army – on a mission to reclaim the love he believes the Revolution denied him.
Mikhalkov mixes quiet humor with horror in an especially Russian way. Watching a scene in which Dmitry wears a gas mask while playing French dance hall music on the piano, one imagines that if Chekhov had lived into the 1930s he might have written scenes like this one.
The director and his daughter possess first-rate acting genes, it's clear, and Menshikov is flawless. The film has a supernatural element – a fiery ball that moves around the landscape – that is handled a bit ineptly, and probably should have been cut. Ditto for the final scene.
The film recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but do not confuse it with that other Oscar magnet, Forrest Gump. The American film adheres to the Hollywood party line, assuring us that existence is as simple as milk and all our endings are happy. Mikhalkov, who also gave us Dark Eyes, is more interested in the unutterable complexity that gives life its texture and its ache.