Steven Gaydos

A winning return to the themes and form of Slave of Love, Burnt by the Sun is Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov's first post-Soviet-era pic to grapple directly with his country's political legacy. Film unwinds in a leisurely fashion, but achieves tragic grandeur and emotional payoff that make it an engrossing experience. Sun will score with fans of Russian cinema, and should collect solid specialty release dollars internationally.

Just as the filmmaker's Slave brilliantly captured the Communist revolutionary era by focusing on a group of people seemingly oblivious to the tumultuous events around them, Sun is a masterful evocation of Stalinist Russia of the '30s, as experienced by a small circle of family and friends enjoying an idyllic existence far from the purges and GULAGs.

Co-written by Mikhalkov, story covers a day in the life of a Soviet Revolutionary hero, Sergei Kotov (excellently played by the director in a return to screen acting after a long layoff). With his radiant wife, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), and precocious, spirited daughter, Nadia (played by Mikhalkov's daughter Nadia), Kotov relishes his life in the country, where locals treat him as a towering father figure. Into this paradise comes Dmitry (Oleg Menshikov), a handsome 30ish rogue with a mysterious past that includes an affair with Marusya that preceded her marriage. Dmitry is clearly on a sinister mission, but while Conrad's Heart of Darkness was a journey of discovery into the dark side of the human soul, Dmitry travels into a heart of gladness, where laughter and love abound.

The first half of the film may belabor this point, especially for American audiences who might expect more plot and less atmosphere. But by midpoint it becomes clear that the tension between Kotov's dreams and the reality of the Stalinist apparatus is the true subject of the film. Second half is a riveting display of bravura filmmaking as Dmitry and Kotov circle one another, both painfully aware that their fates are bound by ties to the Communist cause. Pacing aside, Mikhalkov holds the audience's attention with his shrewd juxtaposition of the Kotov family's fragile beauty and the political terror that is descending in the form of an old friend.

As befits a film from the country of Stanislavsky and Chekhov, Sun's performances, from the leads to the colorful supporting characters, are uniformly first-rate. The four main players forge indelible portrayals out of the strongest screenplay Mikhalkov has worked from in years.

The script (co-authored with Rustam Ibraguimbekov, who also co-wrote Mikhalkov's Urga) steers clear of political posturing, instead focusing on what Mikhalkov is really interested in: the universal human dilemma of lives caught between personal, peaceful dreams and the violent traumas of historical forces. If Mikhalkov indulges himself in painting the picture of the country lifestyle and lays on the anti-Communist symbolism with a heavy hand at the end, those are minor complaints about what is clearly a major film.

Cinematography by Vilen Kaluta delicately captures the nuances of light and color from the fields, forests and rivers of pic's pastoral setting. The film is astonishingly polished in light of Mikhalkov's statement in the press notes that he "shot this film very quickly."