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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