Burnt by the Sun
(Утомлённые солнцем)

Nikita Mikhalkov

Burnt by the Sun (Утомлённые солнцем)
Made in: Russia
Language: Russian
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Starring: Nikita Mikhalkov, Oleg Menshikov, Ingeborga Dapkünaité, Nadezhda Mikhalkova
Year: 1994

Synopsis: The year is 1936, and the setting is Russia just prior to the infamous Great Purge ordered by Joseph Stalin.

Russian Civil War hero Sergei Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov), a decorated army officer, is visiting his country home outside Moscow and enjoying time off with his wife Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkünaité), their young daughter Nadia (Mikhalkov's real-life daughter Nadezhda Mikhalkova), and most of Maroussia's eccentric relatives.

Kotov is a proud Bolshevik whose charisma endears him to just about everyone. The neighbors think he's great, and every young soldier looks upon him as a legend. Then the serenity of Kotov's getaway is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), a charming aristocrat with a good sense of humor and quick wit. But underneath his affable exterior, Mitya has sinister motives.

A former member of the anti-communist White Army, Mitya has switched sides and now serves in the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD (Народный Комиссариат Внутренних). The direct forerunner to the KGB, the NKVD was the secret police force whose responsibilities included hunting down alleged enemies of the Stalin regime.

Mitya's visit is more than a bit awkward, since he was once Maroussia's fiance before mysteriously disappearing in 1923. Although she has moved on in a happy marriage with Kotov, Mitya has not. On the surface, he is treated as a welcome visitor as he and Kotov maintain a charade of friendship.

But their history runs deep, and it is a very nasty one. Things come to a head as Mitya attempts to have Kotov charged in a phantom conspiracy against the State, and even Stalin himself.

Kotov, who's actually a personal friend of Joseph Stalin, remains confident that he is untouchable. However, the true nature of the ruthless state system proves to be far more destructive than either man could have imagined...

The Good: Burnt by the Sun is a powerful, effective film about a time in history that continues to strike all sorts of nerves. Director Nikita Mikhalkov does a great job in conveying the overall attitude and ruthless nature of the Stalin regime by concentrating only on the lives of a few.

Although Mitya's motives are never explicitly stated, the viewer should have no problem understanding exactly what they are. Emotional turning points and threats are mostly implied or disguised, but the tension brewing below the surface is clear.

Mikhalkov's daughter Nadezhda, who was a young child at the time, turns out an excellent performance as we see most of the story through her eyes. Internationally acclaimed Oleg Menshikov shines as well, and one has to wonder how difficult it must be to play the role of an outwardly charming person who hides a detestable inner character (and have it conveyed so convincingly onscreen).

The Bad: Parts of the film seem overly theatrical and overacted. This might have been intentional, but given how powerful the subtleties are, I didn't think they were necessary.

Who would like this film: If you've never seen a non-English film before, you'll definitely be able to follow Burnt by the Sun, since the plot follows a logical flow of events. But I'd say this one's definitely suited more towards seasoned viewers of foreign films, and those who enjoy analyzing movies. It'll also help to have a pretty good understanding of, and interest in, Russian history during the Stalin years.

Burnt By the Sun won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994, and also took home the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes (tied with Zhang Yimou's To Live).

(3 out of 4 stars)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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