“Burnt By The Sun” by Nikita Mikhalkov

Mikhailkov’s Burnt By the Sun.

Nikita Mikhalkov was destined for a life of controversy. His father Sergei wrote the lyrics to the Russian national anthem on no fewer than three occasions. First for Stalin in the 1940s, then  for Brezhnev in the 70s, and most recently for Vladimir Putin in 2001. He himself is a staunch monarchist and a rabid apologist and champion for Serbia. Fortunately though, and in stark contrast to Emir Kusturica, he is first and foremost a film maker, and has managed mercifully to confine his deeply questionable politics to his personal life.

After a stint as a successful actor, he wrote, directed and starred in his first feature At Home In The Company Of Strangersin 1974. Impressively enigmatic, it’s a good hour before it eventually reveals itself as Russia’s answer to the spaghetti western. But it was Slave To Love in ‘76 that brought him international recognition, catching the eye of the wonderful Italian scriptwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, who died recently at the age of 96.

Marcello Mastroianni and Silvana Mangano in Oci Ciornie.

In an interview she gives on the recently re-released DVD of Visconti’s Ludwig, which she wrote for him, together with Bellissima, Senso, Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopardas well as many, many others, she describes how she and Mastroianni had been so impressed by it, that they travelled to Russia in search of the director (she goes on in the same interview to lament, dolefully “I really only have three good friends in the (Italian film) industry; Marcello (as in Mastroianni), Luchino (as in Visconti) and Nino (as in Rota, the composer and long-time collaborator of Fellini)!).

Visconti’s The Leopard.

When eventually they tracked him down, the three of them took a short story of Chekov’s and turned it into the irrepressibly charming Oci Ciornie, or Dark Eyes, for which Mastroianni unsurprisingly won the Best Actor award at Cannes in ‘87.

Urga, Mikhalkov’s gentle portrait of life on the outskirts of Outer Mongolia, then won both the Golden Lion at Venice and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in ’92. But it was Burnt By the Sun that proved to be both his most critically and commercially successful film, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and a second Academy Award in ‘94.

Set over the course of a single day in the 1930s, the pastoral idyll that Mikhalkov and his wife and daughter enjoy is shattered by the return of a man who seems to have “known” his wife from her past, and who appears now to be a high ranking government official.

Helmut Berger and Romy Schneider in Visconti’s Ludwig.

The script brilliantly draws together the public and private axis of the narrative arc, and a deeply personal drama is set against the backdrop of the kind of deadly political chaos that so many people, tragically, just happen to be born into. By focusing on the havoc that politics wreaks on the lives of ordinary people, it manages to be about politics, without being specifically political. And the painfully moving performances, combined with the beautifully understated direction, make Burnt By The Sun one of the few genuinely great films of the last few decades.

He arrived in Cannes in 2010 with a sequel that wasn’t, apparently, as ill-judged as everyone assumed it would be. But it’s yet to surface anywhere. And coming as it did a year after his stage adaptation of the original appeared in London at the National, it seems the temptation of repeatedly returning to the well is proving hard for Mikhalkov to resist. Which is a shame, but is hardly surprising. Because Burnt By The Sun is a very serious film indeed.

You can see the trailer for Burnt By the Sun here.

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