Burnt Offering

Well, at least those idiots at the Motion Picture Academy (MPA) got this one right. Last month Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun copped the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It's a damn good film -- I still prefer Before the Rain, but why quibble? And yet I swore I never again would mention the Academy Awards in any of my reviews after the MPAA completely snubbed Hoop Dreams, easily one of the three or four best films of 1994 and a documentary to boot, and then added insult to injury by bypassing Red on a technicality while nominating the criminally indefensible prison cliche-fest Shawshank Redemption for Best Picture. Even O.J.'s legal team couldn't make a case for that piece of shit. But I'm making an exception in this case because I realize the MPAA's seal of approval on a foreign film can have a big effect at the box office, and Burnt by the Sun deserves as wide an audience as possible. Go see the movie. Then join me in boycotting the pathetic annual Oscars spectacle from here on out.

Mikhalkov closes his film with the dedication "to everyone who was burnt by the sun of revolution." Protagonist Serguei Kotov (stunningly portrayed by writer-director Mikhalkov, who looks like a cross between Sean Connery and Omar Sharif -- and intuitively gets the tough-tender mix just right) is one such burn victim, but when the film opens he doesn't know it yet. Comrade Kotov, a military hero of the 1917 Russian Revolution, wants nothing more than to enjoy his day off (Mikhalkov never reveals what exactly Kotov does during his days on) with his ravishing (and much younger) wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), and high-spirited six-year-old daughter, Nadia (played to wide-eyed perfection by Mikhalkov's real-life daughter Nadia).

Nineteen years have passed since Colonel Kotov fought for the victorious Bolsheviks in the revolution. Lenin died more than ten years ago, Trotsky has been banished, and Stalin has seized control of the Soviet regime. Mikhalkov does not explain how Comrade Kotov, a man of keen insight and hard-won wisdom, could remain so oblivious to the perils of Stalinism. The filmmaker asks us to take it on faith that a decorated war hero and man of vision would remain a true believer despite evidence of the perversion of Lenin's noble ideals all around him. It's a tough sell, and Mikhalkov never really closes on it.

Perhaps the good life has gotten to Comrade Kotov. He lives comfortably with his family and an assortment of eccentric friends and relatives at a bucolic dacha in the country. The events rocking Moscow and the rest of Russia haven't had much impact on Kotov's world in years. But they are about to.

The day gets off to a lousy start when a frantic villager rouses Kotov from a morning of gentle play with Maroussia and Nadia. The man is hysterical; only war hero Kotov can stop a misguided tank battalion from conducting maneuvers in the middle of the village's prized wheat field. So, grumbling all the way about the intrusion on his free time, Kotov rides off on horseback to the rescue. Cowering before the force of the legendary colonel's personality, the wet-behind-the-ears officers commanding the battalion immediately decide to play their war games elsewhere, thereby narrowly avoiding a bloody conflict with peasants who already have taken up rocks and scythes to stop the giant metal-plated treads from grinding their precious crop into the mud.

As the tanks retreat, the victorious Colonel Kotov walks arm-in-arm back to the dacha with admiring wife and uncomprehending daughter. The wheat field waves gently in the morning sun. All appears well with the world. Though he has decisively won this battle, Kotov is about to lose the war.

That afternoon a visitor arrives. Mitia (Oleg Menchikov), a handsome young man whose delicate features, slick hair, and citified clothes contrast markedly with Kotov's broad shoulders, thick hands, and open face, used to be Maroussia's lover. But he fled the country for France under mysterious circumstances. (Maroussia's wrists still bear the scars of her attempted suicide upon learning of her lover's flight.) After working as a pianist, dancer, composer, and taxi driver, Mitia has returned to his mother country under circumstances equally mysterious as those surrounding his departure.

A game of cat-and-mouse ensues between Mitia and Kotov, who worries that his wife, overwhelmed by the unexpected return of her first love, will leave him. And Kotov may be justified in that fear. But Mitia has more on his mind than merely reclaiming his old flame. Burnt by the Sun becomes an imbroglio of lies, half-truths, omission, and suspicion. Mikhalkov sets you up to think you're watching a Chekhovian love triangle with political overtones; not until the film's third act do you realize how deeply intertwined the love, politics, and revenge motifs will become. And, in true Hitchcock fashion, you realize it only moments before the characters themselves do. The effect is devastating.

Mikhalkov does a crackerjack job of depicting the gulf between Lenin's dream and Stalin's nightmare. Comrade Kotov is not a bad guy; he's a distinguished leader and a man of honor, a compassionate husband and doting father. (The delicate intimacy shared by Kotov and Nadia contributes to the most exquisite and unaffected father-daughter bond ever committed to celluloid. Only a real-life father-daughter acting team could have pulled it off so unself-consciously.) But he loves his motherland above all else, and believes blindly in the precepts of the revolution. Mikhalkov illustrates the tragic cost of such blindness, and offers a harrowing warning for the "New Bolsheviks" of the 1990s, who, if they don't learn from history, may be heading for a little sunburn of their own.

 
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