It seems unfortunate that so much controversy was generated about BARBER OF SIBERIA based on its budget. Had there not been as much money spent, there would not have been as much hollow publicity and Mikhalkov would never have generated even a fraction of the resentment that swirls around this movie from Russian people. What has clearly happened here is that after all the hoopla and expense, people were expecting something more "important", perhaps something more political or more complex and less charming. What they got was a very old-fashioned and lovely romantic film which treats the "old days" of Tsarist Russia with a forgiving and nostalgic eye.
There's no question that this film is more decidedly commercially-oriented than any other Mikhalkov film. But if in its sprawling ambition it doesn't quite have the incisive mastery of balance between beauty and intellect that earmark his best work, it still has plenty to commend it. In this film Mikhalkov seems to intend to use the pageantry of old Russia (both in terms of geography and architecture) as the backdrop to a sweet love story of warmth and humor. It's pretty much a universal story, not at all particularly innately Russian in its basic conception, but told in the context of a myriad of very idealized and elaborate images of Imperial Russia.
I can understand how a very serious-minded Russian might feel the film is too light, too forgiving of Tsarist institutions and bureaucracy, too comedic. But Russia is not only Dostoevski -- it is also Gogol or Ilf and Petrov. This film represents a certain love affair with Russia, albeit through the kind of lens a Capra or a Lubitsch gave to America in their films. It starts out as a romantic comedy set against a HUGE tapestry that emphasizes beauty over subtlety -- it deepens as it goes along, and as a result the end result eludes definition.
What it is perhaps most like (in this respect) is Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Huge attention to detail but a decided point-of-view to idealize the nostalgic time being explored.
And sadly, the other apt comparison to AMBERSONS is in terms of running time, as clearly it has been somewhat over-edited for commercial reasons. I've only seen the 3 hour version, but I would willingly see the 4 1/2 hour version, because I trust Mikhalkov enough to suppose that the film would be better at the greater length, as there are a few slightly disjointed or compressed transitions in the 3 hour version which no doubt reflect cuts.
What there need be no controversy about are the photography (which is stunning -- this is the most beautiful film ever shot in Russia) and the performances, especially Oleg's. It is old-fashioned movie-making of a type seldom seen these days. It is no ANDREI RUBLEV, but its heart is in a different place.
The real crime is that this film was never released in America. I saw it on the big screen in New York a few years ago thanks to a Russian film festival, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity, because it's almost like Americans were prevented from seeing it. All I can say is this: you should see this film in the theater if you have a chance. It's not Mikhalkov's finest film, but it is in certain ways his most ambitious. It is sumptuously beautiful to look at on the big screen, and even Mikhalkov not quite at his best is eminently worth the time invested. He's one of our greatest living filmmakers in the world, and you will not be wasting your time watching this film, even with its slight sense of narrative imbalance and its forgiving nostalgic glow. To most viewers it is a beautiful and endearing film.
Not every film can be as devastating as BURNT BY THE SUN. This film is more akin to the diffuse charm of Mikhalkov's DARK EYES, with that earlier film's combination of comedy and tragedy which was clearly Chekhovian. No-one expected DARK EYES to be all things to all people -- were the portraits of the local bureaucrats in that movie not gentle satires as well, and isn't that film a bit about an idealized "Russian spirit" that informs the philandering tragic character which Mastroanni plays? Certainly. But since that film didn't cost a zillion dollars like this one, no one complained about it.
Forget the budget. Just see THE BARBER OF SIBERIA and enjoy it on its own terms.