In the glorious golden fields of wheat, poppy-red blood blooms on the white tunics of an army of boys, mowed down by a swarm of bullets. Back when I stood knee-high to a balalaika, Doctor Zhivago burned this image in my memory, welling up the same moist ache that never left the eyes of its hero (Omar Sharif), a good man torn between duty and love, a poet cast into the Siberian winter by history.
Thirty years after David Lean's sprawling, sentimental rendering of the Revolution, filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov (Close to Eden) forces Doctor Zhivago through the looking glass, replacing epic sweep with short, moody strokes in a bourgeois ode to Bolshevism. Burnt by the Sun, which won this year's Oscar for best foreign film, retraces a summer day in 1936 when the light of the Soviet star began to lose its warmth. Its focus is square-shouldered but graying Kotov (Mikhalkov), a war hero, pillar of his community, loving father and husband.
Rousted from a steam bath by an anxious agricultural worker, Kotov rides bareback to rescue “the people's wheat” from tank commanders enforcing collectivization. The old colonel, grinning through his teeth on the edge of the field, makes painfully clear to the tank commanders that his pull can hurt them where it counts. His we-got-'em-by-the-balls bravado brings smiles to the faces of rake-wielding babushkas and young soldiers, as well as his wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapounaite), and lovely daughter, Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov). This coarse camaraderie is a marked contrast, however, to the genteel atmosphere at the State House for Artists and Musicians, where Kotov lives with his eccentric in-laws.
Despite the bourgeois trappings, Kotov couldn't be happier. But then they're visited by a pair of “undesirable guests”: first, Mitia (Oleg Menchikov), who was Maroussia's old flame and is now one of Stalin's secret policemen; and then a mystical fireball, Mitia's symbolic counterpart, which suggests the shifting cosmology of communism.
Like an impressionist painting, Burnt is more concerned with aspect than detail; Mikhalkov charts internal pressures — political and psychological — by hovering around a scene of domestic bliss, conveying the shadow's approach by studying the play of light. An overflowing glass reveals Maroussia's flood of emotion. Kotov tells his daughter the goal of Soviet power — so that children can “run without having to flee” — as they float gently downstream.
Burnt by the Sun, like Mikhalkov's Dark Eyes, reeks of Chekhov, tracking the declining fortunes of a household about to be uprooted by changing times. You can almost hear an offstage ax as Kotov finally leaves the dacha, the golden sunlight starting to be eclipsed by the darkness of a Stalinist nightmare.
Burnt by the Sun opens Fri, May 26, at the Lumiere in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.