Friday, September 16, 2005

Burnt By the Sun

1995 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Nikita Mikhalkov (A Slave of Love; Dark Eyes)

Enigmatic Franco-Russian co-production exploring the tragic effects of Stalinism. This is the first time that I have ever started a post and then had to abandon it in favor of more thought (you could say it was the first time I thought before I posted). But last night I was not sure what to make of this movie.

First, what is good about it. The acting is simply extraordinary. Oleg Menshikov strikes me as Kevin Kline at his best as Mitya, the long lost love returning home under mysterious circumstances. The director, a famous actor himself, is super as revolutionary hero Col. Kotov. But his daughter, Nadezhda Mikhalkova, is the real revelation as an Anna Paquin-esque inquisitve little girl. Does she ever hit the right notes in every scene! The movie is also gorgeous visually, especially the last twenty minutes. Some stunning shots of a wheat field really enhance the ending.

Now, what is hard to figure out. The movie is loosely a "Deer Hunter" split narrative, with over an hour examining an idyllic community of artists and scholars who sing songs and go to picnics and have fun with each other all day long. Everyone is happy and loves each other. It is straight up Checkov (the first act ofCherry Orchard, at least, which gets a reference in the script). Then, Mitya returns after years away. While he seems to fit right in, we gradually learn that he has ulterior motives. This leads to a briefer dark half that explores the negative effects of being too close to Stalin.

I woke up and liked the movie better than before. What I hadn't given the movie is that the bohemian mad tea party in the first half is supposedly the early days of the Russian revolution under Lenin and then Stalin comes along and destroys that happiness. I am not used to a movie singing the praises of any stage of that history aside from the initial overthrow of the Czars. But if I grant the Soviet worldview, the narrative makes sense. By 1995, you would think a movie about the Soviet government would do more than just dump on Stalin. But Mikhalkov was apparently not a progressive artist, but more of a populist. He later was an MP in Victor Chernomyrdin's party. Not the worst choice possible, but he's not exactly Solzhenitsyn either.

Lots of talent on this film; but it still holds an ideological baggage that makes it hard for this Western liberal to fully endorse it.