I’m generally not so dedicated to movies as to watch them several times, but a few of them I love so much, I treat myself to a viewing every year or so. After watching Burnt By The Sun for the third time last night, I am now convinced that nothing will beat it as my Favourite Film Ever.
My husband, a top Russian student in his school days whose (
possibly hopefully ironic) life’s ambition was to join the KGB, has turned me into a devoted follower of Russian cinema. DVDs are hard to come by, so we have by no means a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, but Burnt By The Sun was a big enough hit when it was released in 1994 as to make it easily available. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Grand Prize at Cannes, and writer, director and leading actor Nikita Mikhalkov is one of the greats of Russian cinema.
Set in a Russian country home during a single June holiday in 1936, the movie tells the story of politics and family history entangling a high-profile Russian general and leading to his sudden downfall. General Kotov (Mikhalkov) and his wife Maroussia are spending the holiday with her family — artists and aristocrats nostalgic for pre-revolutionary Russia, but able to live a carefree life under the auspices of Maroussia’s Bolshevik husband, a hero of the local people. Their relationships are warm and loving, and their day is filled with laughter and games. Kotov’s daughter Nadia (Mikhalkov’s real-life daughter Nadezhda), a feisty girl of six, charms everyone, but has a special bond with her beloved father, whose communist views she eagerly copies. Enter Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), Maroussia’s foster brother, who was sent abroad by the regime in 1923 after fighting in the White Army against the Bolsheviks. Nobody has seen him for more than ten years, and he is welcomed warmly. From the movie’s opening sequence it is clear that he has come on an order from above, but after his arrival, it is his relationship with Maroussia that moves to the forefront. The two were once lovers, and she is very much conflicted about his reappearance. For the sake of Nadia, however, everybody keeps up appearances, until it becomes clear that Mitya has come to get Kotov arrested. Accusing Mitya of being nothing more than a “whore” for the secret police, Kotov insists on his special relations to Stalin himself and lets himself be removed without betraying any fear or spoiling the family’s holiday.
The movie’s strength is the contrast of a pastoral idyll and glimpsed moments of terror and fear. The family scenes are charming and perfectly acted; Nadia drawing her adored “uncle Mitya” into silly little games and performances is heart-wrenching to watch. The audience know things will end badly ever since the opening scene showed Mitya playing Russian roulette in order to decide whether to take this assignment or not. But it’s not just this knowledge, it’s all the little scenes that show the pervasiveness of Stalin’s regime: the holiday they are celebrating is one in honor of “the building of Stalin’s balloons,” hot-air balloons that serve no other purpose than dragging enormous pictures of the man himself all over the countryside. The pioneers are singing and marching all day, and by the riverside, a loudspeaker system repeatedly reminds citizens to enjoy themselves. Maroussia’s family choose to ignore it all, but only because they think they can afford to. As it is, no place is safe, for nobody. Kotov, a devoted communist, is sure of his safety and protection by Stalin until the very last minute, when he realises what is going on: Stalin’s Great Purge does not care for titles and war heroes. Mitya, too, despairs of his situation. The movie ends with Nadia walking home through the wheat fields, whistling a song, while the credits inform us that Maroussia and Nadia were taken to prison the same day Kotov was executed.
I’m aware that by giving away the ending, I deny you the sucker punch this movie dealt me when I first watched it. But even after watching it for the third time, it still affected me deeply, and I only now feel I have properly understood the political setting. Only by knowing the history behind it, it becomes so breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying at the same time. But even without it, the cinematography is wonderful, with stunning pictures, loveable characters, wonderful humor, and just enough symbolism to make it artful without overdoing it. It’s long, but it will draw you in. Go find it now!