There's a big difference between films about Russians, and Russian films. It's the difference between David Lean's Doctor Zhivago and Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun. Both deal with the same basic notion: individuals struggling with the totalitarian legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution. But where Lean's 1965 epic story sprawls over some 30 years in time and uses both a cast of thousands and a who's who of stars, Mikhalkov makes the same points through close observation of one family on one long summer day in the country. Through the fateful actions of three people, and the sparkling counterpoise of a tiny child's innocence, he makes us see everything that had happened in Russia since the tsars fell, and much of what the country was yet to endure. It is an amazing achievement.
It's the summer of 1936. A time of hidden terror. Determined to eliminate any possible opposition, Stalin, through his secret police, the NKVD, has begun what came to be known as The Great Purge, which would result in the deaths of millions. "Show Trials," at which tortured defendants make blanket confessions, are being broadcast daily on Radio Moscow. We actually see none of this, and hear only snippets about it on the radio, but the fact of it informs everything.
Serguei Petrovitch Kotov, played by Mikhalkov himself, is a hero of the revolution. Now a much-decorated colonel in the Red Army, he is enjoying his "one day off" in the country with his beautiful young wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite) and their six-year-old daughter Nadia, played by Mikhalkov's own daughter Nadia.
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Kotov is earthy, carnal, coarse and sexy as hell. In his late 40s, he's a man full of his own physical and political power, but he harbors a secret: he's afraid that his exquisite, aristocratic wife is less in love with him than he is with her. When Dimitri -- Maroussia's long-lost musician love, who fled the country during the revolution -- unexpectedly turns up, he delights Nadia with jokes and music. But there is something lurking below the surface of his affability. Kotov never once takes his eye off Dimitri, and his scrutiny is subtly returned. The two circle one another like wary fighting birds; there is obviously something dangerous to come. Still, Dimitri flirts with Maroussia in their old haunts down by the river as the older relatives wonder if he's finally come back for her -- and if she will go with him. Few pay attention to Colonel Kotov.
In one of the most extraordinary scenes in an altogether extraordinary film, Kotov takes Nadia for a rowboat ride, and as they drift through the gold and green summer afternoon, he shows all his love for his tiny daughter -- and for his country. In a truly moving testament of faith, Kotov tells the child why he fought for Communism, and of his absolute belief in the better future it will create for her.
That he is so terribly, terribly wrong is just one of the awful ironies that punctuate the final reel. As in Russian opera, there is no simple way for a story like this to conclude. That its endings are both politically correct, and emotionally devastating, is a tribute to Mikhalkov's genius.
-- Joanne Harrison