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Russia, 1936: revolutionary hero Colonel Kotov is spending an idyllic summer in his dacha with his young wife and six-year-old daughter Nadia and other assorted family and friends. Things change dramatically with the unheralded arrival of Cousin Dmitri from Moscow, who charms the women and little Nadia with his games and pianistic bravura. But Kotov isn't fooled: this is the time of Stalin's repression, with telephone calls in the middle of the night spelling doom - and he knows that Dmitri isn't paying a social call... Written by
Michael Brooke <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Burnt by the Sun" is a powerful example of what a genuinely Russian movie can be when it uses the good sides of western film-making : a coherent plot, professional camera work, and freedom of expression, all things that were rare for the cinema of Soviet times. Of course, it is not surprising that it was made by Nikita Mikhalkov, one of the few Russian directors who achieved lasting world success during communism, and therefore he had the right contacts abroad to get a decent budget. Though, "Burnt by the Sun" is way better than Mikhalkov's pompous "Barber of Siberia", which was alloted more money than any other film in the history of Russian cinema.
In "Burnt by the Sun", Mikhalkov was able to give us a palpable feeling of the beauty and genius of Russia. The lighting is magnificent all the way through, and the ripe and wide wheat fields shine like gold. The action takes place in a cozy dacha among the birch trees, a house which seems to be the nest of a bunch of gentle and carefree eccentrics, all in an atmosphere that reminds pleasantly of Tchekov.
Yet, you can tell from the start that "Burnt by the Sun" is not going to be just a comedy, as the first scene opens on a man cutting his veins in a bathtub while the telephone is ringing. However, this first forewarning soon gets forgotten throughout most of the film, which keeps a warm, light-hearted, slightly nostalgic tone almost all the time. It is only towards the middle you realize that it starts looming slowly towards predictable tragedy, and this only gets obvious in the very last moments.
It turns out that the characters we see are all members of an old aristocratic family who were spared the horrors of the revolution because the younger daughter, Marusia, married a Red Army colonel, much older than she is. Thus, they keep on living as they ever did, playing cards, drinking tea from samovars, making private jokes in French. They even have a maid and a parrot. They seem totally oblivious of the reality around them. Except for innocent looking balloons with Stalin's face on them and a few parading pioneers, the communist regime is visible almost only through the presence of colonel Kotov, brilliantly played here by Nikita Mikhalkov himself.
Colonel Kotov impersonates a character very familiar to the Russian mentality : he is tall, strong, authoritarian, but at the same time protective, warm-hearted, charming and prone to jokes. He is about just as sympathetic as the gruff milkman with a heart of gold in "Fiddler on the Roof". Although he is a military, he is not the kind of guy you think as having blood on his hands. But of course Lenin and Stalin's aura over Russian people was also partly due to the fact that they represented strong and protective father figures.
The story takes a sudden turn with the arrival of an enigmatic character disguised as a Santa Claus in the middle of summer. He turns out to be known by everyone in the house, as he is the adoptive child of the late grandfather. In fact, he was Marusia's childhood companion, and her lover in the first place, but was evicted by Kotov, who protected henceforth the whole family from repression. It soon becomes clear that the man, called Mitya, has come to take revenge for his shattered life.
All performances here are good, even though Nikita Mikhalkov, as an actor, still manages to steal the show. But one will not either forget the performance of his then six-year old daughter Nadya , who also plays his daughter in the movie. A charming, energetic and witty child performance which impersonates the innocence of the family about to be lost.
The French title for the movie was "Deceitful Sun", and I find it more appropriate. Although the film bathes in quiet sunlight, it deals with one of the darkest eras of Russian/Soviet history : Stalinism. In the early 1930's, Stalin decided to eliminate much of the newly arisen communist elite whom he did not trust anymore, and hired former enemies of communism, or half-criminals, to eradicate his own official allies. Thus, colonel Kotov remains self-righteous and sure of himself almost until the end because he simply cannot believe that Stalin will not protect him.
Needless to say that "Burnt by the Sun" is one of the first Russian movies that deals so openly with the subject. A subject which still remains quite sensitive since millions of people had their lives shattered by those events. Unlike what happened for Nazism, it was not until the end of the communist regime that it was possible to discuss it openly, even though Stalin's deeds had already been condemned officially a long time before. Therefore, this superb drama is also the symbol of a historical breakthrough.
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