Russian directors sometimes make movies the way Russian generals cleared minefields: by marching through them without noticing the casualties. Crude, but effective.
That's exactly true of Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burnt By the Sun," the Russian film that won the Oscar this year as best foreign movie: It's crude but effective.
Moreover, it bravely confronts the cruel Soviet past, that epoch of infanticidal cannibalism in the late '30s when Stalin guided the revolution into an orgy of eating its own children. It's a symbolic, refracted examination of the melancholy residue of the Great Purges, which some historians credit with consuming as many as 12 million citizens -- a forgotten holocaust in which the Allies never liberated the camps or took photographs of mountains of cadavers, eyeglasses and teddy bears.
But perhaps the title gives away a bit much of Mikhalkov's technique. In case you still don't "get it" two hours and 15 minutes later, he lays it out for you with a trowel: "This film," he tells us in a title note, "is dedicated to all those who were burnt by the sun of revolution." Duh!
The object of burning in the film is Col. Serguei Petrovitch Kotov (Mikhalkov himself), hero of the revolution, legendary Bolshevik and personal friend of Stalin. All of these, by the weird logic of paranoia, earn him a trip to the Lubyanka and a bullet behind the ear, with a wayward stop for public trial and humiliating confession.
This, of course, is in the future that Kotov cannot know. But he can guess, when to his crowded summer dacha outside Moscow in the year 1936 comes his wife's ex-lover Mitia, a clever, handsome, somewhat mysterious chap who obviously has a hidden agenda.
For a while, the film feels positively Chekhovian: a summer home full of intriguing characters, some comic, some idiotic; the swirl and babble of dinners, picnics; alliances forming and reforming; small deceits and misunderstandings. But it's all set against an increasingly obvious symbolic backdrop.
The great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was a believer in what he called montage, which he defined as visual metaphors to describe inner states. Thus in the famous Odessa-steps-massacre sequence in "Potemkin," he cuts to show us a statuary of stone lions in a number of accelerating postures from repose to full pounce, meant to convey the idea of the people's will being aroused like a sleeping lion awaking to attack.
It appears that Mikhalkov has studied his Eisenstein but has seen no other movies, for over and over he creates symbol- sequences of overwhelming banality that dilute the power of the passionate drama of seduction and betrayal we are otherwise quite happily witnessing.
One of the crudest such is the construction, by a pioneer battalion (youth corps) ironically named after Colonel Kotov, of an elaborate balloon-launching apparatus to celebrate the mighty Stalin. The banner it proudly wears is perfectly in tune with the melody of Ego Mad Tyrantspeak: "Long live Comrade Stalin and his glorious balloon builders."
But of course only the exceptionally slow of wit won't get that the structure is the structure of oppression being skillfully built to strangle the country, and that the launching of the balloon will signal its ascendancy.
When he isn't bonking us on the head with this sort of thing (most baffling: a mysterious fireball that appears midway through the story and reminded me less of the purges than of the glittering bubble out of which Billie Burke popped in "The Wizard of Oz"), he's building an exceptionally moving story.
One of the darker themes is the usurpation of the young by the old. Kotov sees his death in the cold eyes of Mitia (Oleg Menchikov, in a brilliant performance) and knows that his time is over. He knows too that it is pointless to fight with any weapon save his considerable charisma, and so the middle part of the movie becomes a kind of oddly touching charm duel between these two for the love of Kotov's daughter, Nadia (Mikhalkov's own daughter Nadia, who perched on her father's shoulders when he accepted his Oscar).
And when he doesn't force the images to be Symbols with a capital S, he manages to use the far more effective symbol with a small s, something that conveys real emotional force. One such is a moment when Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), Kotov's wife and Mitia's ex-lover, gazes at the placid surface of a lake and seems to sense underneath the currents of treachery and violence. That's a far better visual metaphor for the tragedy of the purge than the balloon nonsense.
In the end, it's the power of the performers that triumphs over the rigid programmatics of the director. His own character is a magnificent lion of a man, proud and tough and seething with guts, whose last best gift to his daughter and his wife is the way he goes to meet his fate with a sunny disposition, sparing them the trauma of understanding the tragedy.
"Burnt By the Sun"
Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov
Starring Nikita Mikhalkov and Oleg Menchikov
Released by Sony Classics
Unrated (profanity, sexual situations)