Burnt by the Sun (Russia/France, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Burnt by the Sun, the winner of 1995's Best Foreign Film Oscar, attempts, with only limited success, to combine two segments of radically different pacing and temperament. The movie's resolution represents forty-five minutes of taut, arresting drama. The setup, which weighs in at an overlong ninety minutes, has a tendency to meander. The overall effect is to limit the impact of the picture, primarily because half the audience may be asleep by the time the climax arrives.

The film takes place in 1936 Russia, nineteen years after the Communist Revolution and well into Stalin's reign of terror. We are introduced to Colonel Serguei Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov), hero of the Revolution, and his family: young wife Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite) and six-year old daughter Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov). They are spending a happy, peaceful summer at a rural retreat. Into this idyllic setting comes Dimitri (Oleg Menchikov), an old lover of Moroussia's who was once in exile and whose current occupation is unknown. His appearance irrevocably alters the loving relationship between Kotov and his wife as secrets, both new and old, come to light, and buried jealousy bubbles to the surface.

Director Nikita Mikhalkov is up front about the ultimate meaning of his film, dedicating it to "everyone who was burnt by the sun of the Revolution." This movie is very much an attack on the policies and paranoia of Stalin. The chilling final scenes emphasize the theme as we come to realize just how far-reaching the dictator's grasp was, and how insecure even the most loyal patriots were.

Burnt by the Sun's most apparent flaw is the stagnancy of its first two-thirds, which are scripted like Checkov in slow-motion, but without depth. Other than establishing relationships and hinting at past misdeeds, this portion of the film serves little purpose beyond presenting impressive views of Russian country vistas and highlighting several fine performances. Directors like the legendary Ingmar Bergman embraced this sort of deliberate, unhurried pace, but Bergman's films always had multiple levels of meaning. Mikhalkov's pastoral sequences are distressingly shallow -- they give us the characters and their relationships, but little more. Only in the final third does the plot begin to explore issues of substance and power.

Symbolism plays a key part in Burnt by the Sun. Some of it, like a huge, billowing portrait of Stalin, is obvious, but much is obscure. It's left up to the individual viewer to determine how literally to take several instances of magic realism -- not that a particular interpretation will more than subtly change anyone's appreciation of the film. Mikhalkov makes sure that his principal thesis is conveyed in such a manner that it's impossible to overlook or misunderstand.

Burnt by the Sun is characterized by solid acting (including a performance by director Mikhalkov as Kotov), but the real standout is the film maker's daughter Nadia, who displays a wonderfully wide-eyed energy and unexpected aptitude for dialogue. At the tender age of six, the young actress gives an amazingly unforced portrayal.

This is the first anti-Stalin film to come out of post-Communist Russia, and the new freedom shows in the full scope of what Mikhalkov is able to criticize. This story is the latest to illustrate the age-old injustices inherent in absolute power and how easily past loyalties are betrayed. After the protracted and sluggish setup, the meat of Burnt by the Sun is as gripping as that of any "serious" motion picture -- it's getting to that point that's the main difficulty.

Burnt by the Sun (Russia/France, 1994)

Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Russian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1