The New York Times
Caryn James

Nikita Mikhalkov walked off the stage at the Academy Awards ceremony last month carrying his Oscar for best foreign-language film in one hand and the movie's star, his 8-year-old daughter Nadia, in the other. He knows the value of being a sentimentalist and a showman. He is also a director of the first rank, whose films go far deeper than their seductive visual beauty. So it makes sense that his exquisite, lyrical and tough-minded Burnt by the Sun combines surface charm with trenchant realism. Mr. Mikhalkov himself plays a retired army officer and hero of the Russian Revolution, who on one gloriously sunny summer day in 1936 discovers the reach and horror of Stalin's rule.

With its Chekhovian sense of a brutal future encroaching on an elegant, dying world, Burnt by the Sun matches the enduring power of Mr. Mikhalkov's best works, Slave of Love (1976) and Dark Eyes (a 1987 film starring Marcello Mastroianni), and is very much of a piece with them.

Slave of Love is set in 1917, when a film crew in the countryside futilely tries to outrun the revolution. Similarly, Burnt by the Sun is poised at a precise and crucial historical moment. Mr. Mikhalkov's fictional character, Kotov, has retired to the country with his young wife, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), and their lively 6-year-old daughter, Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov). When army tanks begin to roll over his neighbors' wheat fields, Kotov uses his influence and status as a hero to turn the tanks back. But because it is 1936, the beginning of Stalin's great terror, Kotov has unwittingly made the kind of gesture for which he will pay. In Slave of Love no one is untouched by the revolution; in Burnt by the Sun no one escapes Stalinism.

With his bushy mustache and thinning hair, Kotov is not a glamorous figure. Mitya (Oleg Menshikov) is. Young and handsome, with dark, slicked-back hair, he is a family friend and former lover of Marusya. He arrives to visit unexpectedly and charms the extended family, especially little Nadia. Kotov is the only one to suspect that Mitya has a political mission. The film layers both men's motives, mixing jealousy over Marusya with political loyalties to suggest a tangle of private feelings and historical forces.

Mr. Mikhalkov turns this idea into emotional drama and subtly plays with historical perspective as well. The romantic aura evokes the traditional past of Chekhov. In the country house, sheer white curtains frame views of lavish woods, and loyal family servants provide comic relief. Mr. Mikhalkov uses lyricism well, recognizing its power to seduce (his audience as well as the film's characters) and its ability to delude and disguise. The film's leisurely pace and lush photography recreate the false security of Kotov's life.

But when Mitya plays the piano and the family dances the cancan before lunch, his playing gradually turns from zany to manic. It is just one of the omens, like the fiery yellow sun that occasionally flashes across the sky, hinting at a world about to explode. In the film's "present" time of 1936, this idyllic setting exists near a hot-air balloon factory, where a banner reads: "Glory to the builders of Stalin's balloons." And the audience's perspective from the 1990s provides the film with much of its ominous tone.

Mr. Mikhalkov plays Kotov as a man whose confidence in himself and his country are at first unshakable. He adores Nadia and in a tender scene they take a boat ride together. He wants a better future for her, he explains, and tells her she must always "respect your Soviet fatherland." He clearly sees a parallel between his own loving relationship with Nadia and what he considers Stalin's benign paternalism. Photographs of Kotov with Stalin are prominent in the house. When Kotov realizes why Mitya has come, he reacts calmly, savoring a last afternoon of freedom. He is certain that a phone call to his friend Stalin will save him in the morning.

As Nadia, the young Miss Mikhalkov is priceless and natural, with blond braids and a sweet enthusiasm. Nadia longs to be part of the children's military regiment, and through her the film reveals how ruthlessly children are used.

Mitya is also more complicated than his role as a Stalinist agent might suggest. He is furious that Marusya has, as he tells her, "obliterated me from your memory." There he articulates one of the film's important themes: forgetting is dangerous, for the past will always haunt the present, sometimes in violent forms.

If at times it seems that Mr. Mikhalkov has used his imagery too bluntly, by the film's end he has put every bit of symbolism to effective use. A man who is lost and drives his truck in circles all day turns out to have a practical function in the plot. And the giant banner showing Stalin's face that rises over the fields at the end may seem too obvious. But that image suggests the way icons assume and change meaning, just as Kotov's view of Stalin changes from hero to villain in the course of one day.