Burnt By the Sun (1994): Mikhalkov Oscar Winning Film

Cannes Film Festival 1994 (Dramatic Competition)–Burnt By the Sun, the new film by the acclaimed Russian director Nikita Mikhlakov, takes place in the Soviet Union circa 1936, just before the notorious Stalinist purges. 

 

Set in a bucolic countryside outside Moscow, it centers on a retired military, Serguei Kotov (Mikhalkov) is enjoying the warm summer with his family. The family bliss is interrupted by the arrival of an outsider, Mitia (Oleg Menchikov), a seemingly friend-relative and, unbeknownst to Kotov, the former lover of his young and beautiful wife Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite). The purpose of his visit remains mysterious almost up to the end, but there’s slight tension in the air whenever he’s present.  Soon, Kotov’s relationship with his wife begins to show strain, and Kotov is suspicious about the visitor’s growing intimacy with his daughter (Nadia Mikhalkov).

Mikhalkov’s chronicle of a quiet, normal family life is emotionally touching and vividly portrayed, with painstaking attention to details.  After the press screening, some critics complained about the slow pacing, indulgent running, and so on, but I found the entire film mesmerizing and compelling in its ambience, visual fluidity, picaresque (almost surreal) imagery, and built-up of suspense, which culminates in an horrifically brutal assassination, motivated by politics.

 

There is an extended sequence, in which Koto makes love to his wife, which is breathtaking and utterly convincing—by standards of sex scenes in Hollywood pictures.  Mikhalkov and his young daughter also star in the film, which many critics saw as an elegy to the old Russia, with a Chekhovian touch of poetic realism in its dealing with trust, love, family life, and how politics impinge on everyday life.

 

The film played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize along with Zhang Yimou’s melodrama “To Live” (It was a tie). 

 

Burnt by the Sun (a great, accurate title, since the screen is flood with bright sun) won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in a year in which the competition was rather tough.  The other nominees were: Before the Sun (from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), Eat Drink Man Woman (by American-based Ang Lee from Taiwan), Farinelli: Il Castrato (from Belgium), and Strawberry and Chocolate (from Cuba).

 

Mikhalkov, who’s the younger brother of director Konchalovsky, carried his daughter on his shoulder when he marched to the podium to accept the Oscar.

 

Russian Film released by Sony Picture Classics.

Cast

 

Nikita Mikhalkov, Nadia Mikhalkov, Oleg Menchikov, Ingeborga Dapkounaite, Andre Oumansky, Viatcheslav Tikhonov.

Running time: 152 Minutes