Overlooked and overshadowed since its Cannes debut one year ago, the luminous Russian film Burnt by the Sun is about to get the attention it has always deserved.
Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, Burnt took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, the runner-up to the Palme d'Or, but when Quentin Tarantino's rambunctious Pulp Fiction grabbed the top spot, nobody could be bothered to care about second place. Among the five nominees for best foreign-language film, Burnt, the only one yet to appear in theaters, was the least known and easiest to ignore. Yet, as the academy recognized by voting it the Oscar, it's the best of the group, a rich and subtle drama, both delicate and powerful, a classically accomplished piece of emotional, character-driven filmmaking.
Mikhalkov, who also co-wrote the film and co-stars with his 6-year-old daughter Nadia, is best known (Dark Eyes, Slave of Love, Oblomov and the masterful An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano) for his ability to re-create Russia's past and his affinity for the empathetic world of Anton Chekhov. What makes Burnt by the Sun, set in 1936, so impressive is the way it uses a Chekhovian sensibility to investigate one of the most horrific periods in modern Russian history, the years of Stalinist terror in which the Soviet system devoured its most promising believers with a ferocity that is beyond understanding.
Burnt takes place almost entirely on a long, languid summer day at a country house outside of Moscow, filled with the usual Russian collection of eccentric relatives, servants and hangers-on. With their fine china, linens and elaborate meals, these people live much as they did before the revolution, Bolsheviks or no Bolsheviks. Excesses have not touched them, but implicit in the film's uneasy stillness is the sense that that innocence is about to end.
Undisputed master here is virile, mustachioed Col. Sergei Kotov (Mikhalkov). A benevolent hero of the Civil War, a friend of Stalin and Gorky so celebrated in his own right that his mere presence can stop maneuvering tanks in their tracks, the magnetic, immensely likable Kotov relishes his influence as well as his beautiful young wife, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), and their 6-year-old pixie daughter Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov).
On this particular Sunday, just before lunch, a stranger arrives. At least, with his outlandish disguise, that's what he appears to be. But Marusya sees beneath the subterfuge and recognizes the handsome Dmitry, familiarly known as Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), an old family friend who no one has seen for eight years.
A jaunty dancer, piano player and storyteller, Mitya brings a giddy intensity to this sleepy afternoon and soon captivates little Nadia. But Marusya is flustered by his sudden appearance because Mitya was her lover when he left. And Kotov is thrown off balance by the tension of Mitya's ambiguous presence, by the air of unspoken agendas he offhandedly carries with him.
Overhanging all of this is a sadness no one can quite put a finger on, a foreknowledge of the doom both Stalin and World War II have stored up for this entire generation. This is discreetly symbolized by the plight of a lost truck driver, unable to figure out where he's headed and the metaphoric appearance of the disturbing, destructive fireball that echoes the film's title.
What Burnt by the Sun does best is elegantly intertwine the personal and political themes of love, trust and betrayal. In addition to an assured evocation of the period, Mikhalkov has taken enormous care with the acuteness of his characterizations, and the entire cast responds with heartbreaking performances.
At 2 hours and 8 minutes, Burnt by the Sun is considerably shorter than it was at Cannes, but nothing of importance has been lost.