Tuesday, November 22, 2016

1994 Winner, Burnt by the Sun

Burnt by the Sun

Director:   Nikita Mikhalkov

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Released:  May 1994

Country:  Russia

The title Burnt by the Sun brings to my mind the Greek myth of Icarus.  Icarus’s father Daedalus was the Wilber/Orville Wright of his mythical generation and created wings that would allow humans to fly.  Icarus was the guinea pig for the flying machine, but Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun.  Icarus got full of himself and did in fact fly with too much altitude, causing the wax holding the wings in place to melt (the gods know where Daedalus got his engineering degree).  Icarus’s wings came undone and he had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River.  Or worse.

In Burnt by the Sun, our Icarus is Sergei Kotov, a colonel in the Red army sometime in the 1930’s.  Kotov, we learn early on, is a kind-hearted bear of a man, a hero of the Soviet Revolution, and a good party man.  While on a vacation in the country, he takes it upon himself to intervene on behalf of local peasant farmers to stop an army commander from using their farm as a practice arena for the his tanks.  Kotov returns to his vacation dacha, spending time with his young pretty wife Marusya, his little daughter Nadya (who has him wrapped around her finger), and Marusya’s eccentric family.  Kotov further displays his easy-going nature, vacationing with the family of weirdos and taking it all in stride.
Luckily, Icarus never had to answer to the NTSB

Kotov’s goodwill is tested, however, when who should pop in during the vacation but Marusya’s ex-boyfriend!  Like Owen Wilson in Meet the Parents, all the family knows and loves Dimitri and thought Marusya should have married Dmitri years ago. (“Why didn’t you?!”)  But unlike the Owen Wilson/Teri Polo relationship in that movie, the reason Dimitri didn’t marry Marusya had to do with the fact he was an enemy of the Red Army and sort of “disappeared” for a while once the Soviets took over.  And so though Ben Stiller really kinda liked Owen Wilson and even would go on to do several other projects with him, the viewer gets the feeling Colonel Kotov is never really going to warm up to his wife’s old flame.

Burnt by the Sun portrays a bucolic Soviet Union, a great place to own a little cottage out in the country and hang out in the off-season.  That’s great for an Old Guard buddy of Stalin, but Dimitri’s reason for coming is mysterious and certainly seems like it could potentially ruin Kotov’s vacation.  Dimitri plays piano, jokes with the family, and makes nice with little Nadya, but we get the sense early on he is full of Bolshevik.  I won’t go further than that.
Kicked his ass in the Revolution and still her dad likes him better!

The plot does tend to drag a bit here and there, but I found the complexity of the characters to be what makes the film work.  The potential love triangle brings a fair amount of suspense, and some of the best moments of the film are the scenes of Kotov and the daughter who adores him (Kotov is played by Nikita Mikhalkov, who also directed; his daughter is played by his real-life daughter Nadya).  Kotov likely sees himself as of the people and a man of importance, buying into the Marxism of the Revolution and believing in the goodness of Communism.  But being a friend of Stalin in the 1930’s was a little like flying a little too close to the sun.  And for Kotov, there may not be a Hudson (with Moscow on it or otherwise) for him to land in.

The Title:  Utomlennye solntsem.  Literally, “Wearied by the sun,” a lyric from a Russian song written in the 1930’s and featured in this film.  I think “Burnt” works better.

The Culture:  In the Soviet Union, if you were a government bigshot like Kotov, the government might give you a nice little dacha to have as a second home.  It certainly seems pleasant enough.

Colonel Kotov and Nadya
Agenda Danger:  Burnt by the Sun ends with a dedication to those “burnt by the sun” of the Russian Revolution.  Walter Duranty, a writer for the New York Times around the time this film takes place, wrote a series of articles about what a swell place the Soviet Union was.  He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.  Duranty’s reporting didn’t see fit to honestly assess the truth of what the Soviet Union really was.  While the New York Times has admitted his reporting was shameful, it’s noteworthy that the Pulitzer board has chosen not to revoke his prize.  Which doesn’t surprise me one bit.

Best Picture that year:  Forrest Gump

Rating:  Mikhalkov made a sequel to this in 2010.  It is considered the biggest bomb in the history of Russian cinema.  Why they made that film, I don’t know.  This one stood out well enough on its own.  Worth seeing, if not an outstanding movie.

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