There’s a scene in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt By the Sun, the winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, that’s so tender I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. On a tranquil afternoon in the Russian countryside, Sergueï Kotov (played by Mikhalkov), a middle-aged hero of the revolution, takes his 6-year-old daughter, Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov), out in a rowboat. The year is 1936, and Kotov, a Red army colonel and friend of Stalin’s, is in the prime of life. He adores his daughter and his beautiful young wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), and he believes, with a passion bordering on the religious, in the glory of the revolution. Now, cradling Nadia’s tiny foot in his hands, he tells her, with pure, smiling adoration, that that foot will always stay soft and beautiful; the comfortable roads the revolution is building will turn the Soviet Union into a modern paradise. Virile and barrel-chested, with a mustache that makes him look like Omar Sharif at 50, Mikhalkov gives a magnificent performance. He shows us that the love Kotov feels for his daughter and for his motherland is exquisitely continuous. For a few moments, I understood the Communist dream in all its devotional fervor.
But the idyll is a mirage. On this particular afternoon, the Kotovs are entertaining a visitor: Mitia (Oleg Menchikov), Maroussia’s lover from years ago, who has arrived with his own intertwined agendas. For a while, the three characters, along with Kotov’s silly in-laws, mingle and ruminate like the testy idlers in a Chekhov play. Mikhalkov, who once made a sublime adaptation of Chekhov (1977’s An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano), gets us to think that we’re watching a romantic-triangle drama with a political edge. In fact, it’s the other way around. Set just as Stalin was launching the great purges, Burnt by the Sun is about the moment when Russian Communism passed from idealism into nightmare.
Mikhalkov, who was one of the few filmmakers to thrive during the Soviet regime, allows us to gaze with fear and horror upon the rise of a terrorist state. Yet his sun-spangled vision of a revolutionary hero is, if anything, a little too romantic. Though it’s doubtful the director himself ever believed in the Communist utopia (he depicts Kotov’s family as a patchwork of bourgeois frivolity), he nevertheless uses his nostalgia propagandistically, as a way of making the evil of Stalin look like something that rose up out of a vacuum. Burnt by the Sun builds slowly, reaching a climax of quiet devastation. If it is finally a good film, though, and not a great one, that’s because Mikhalkov never quite comes to grips with the question he forces us to ask: To what degree was Stalin’s nightmare inherent in Kotov’s dream? B+