Film Reviews

Auteur, auteur!

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Of course, it's a given that these characters are meant to embody both more and less than the sum of their passions and quirks. When Dimitri flirts with Marouissa and Kotov counters by reacting with sweet possessiveness, it seems that the woman is being symbolically associated with the nation itself.

The two men, who supported opposite sides during the war, must therefore represent opposing moral ideas about government. Their struggle for control of Marouissa's affections mirrors the Soviet Union's struggle to choose a moral course in the aftermath of revolution. Will it be the way of Lenin, the idealist, represented by Kotov, or the way of Stalin, the brutal pragmatist, to whom Dimitri might or might not claim allegiance?

By this point in the nation's history, 1936, the argument is moot. Stalin has been in power for many years and has been steadily fortifying his position, staging show trials to publicly humiliate and sometimes kill off former foes and send a message to anybody who might deign to oppose him. Stalin's purge was massive, brutal, and often inexplicable in its choice of targets. He intimidated, imprisoned, and murdered so many people--both inside his government and outside--that it seemed he was targeting not just potential opposition, but anybody with a personality that seemed remotely invidualistic and freethinking. Men like Kotov, come to think of it.

All of which helps explain the film's deliberately obtuse and suggestive title. Mikhalkov has said in interviews that Stalin's ascension to power offered Soviet citizens a substitute for the deity Communist dogma denied them. They might have stopped publicly worshiping God, but for all intents and purposes, Stalin provided the same sort of implacable, supernatural image for them to worship. "Where once a husband and wife might have said, 'Thank God we found one another,'" Mikhalkov has observed, "They would say, during this time, 'Thank Stalin we found one another.'"

The Soviet dictator was as fixed in his position as the sun, and as he grew older, he was nearly as predictable in his movements. He satisfied the Soviet people's need for absolute, predictable order, for an object in which they could place total confidence and faith.

The irony, says this film, is that Soviets tend to greet each new turnover in their government with the same level of fanatical devotion. They salute each rising of the sun and forget the suns that orbited their lives before. They are so trusting that they bathe in new orders--revel in them--until they are burned by them.

All of this sounds disturbingly like an assignment for an English 101 final. But fortunately, although the picture is meant as political allegory, it only occasionally feels like it.

Most of the time, it's a full-blooded, funny, sexy, very entertaining domestic melodrama. Like the short stories and plays of Anton Chekhov, another legendary Russian minimalist, Mikhalkov pursues larger meanings via sparing details. If you know little about the Soviet Union's early history, you'll have trouble figuring out who does what to whom and why. But whenever you get lost in a sea of symbolism, Mikhalkov tosses you an emotional life preserver--a warm moment, a gorgeous pastoral image, or a belly laugh.

Mikhalkov is most confident when he deals with human emotions--with the subtle interplay between adults who have settled into their lives, have grown to know and love one another, yet still have the capacity to be astonished and surprised by what their dearest friends and relatives say and do.

One of the most engaging sequences of the picture has Dimitri standing on a stairwell with little Nadia, teaching her how to do an amateurish soft-shoe number. Like much of Burnt by the Sun, it unfolds in real time, slowly but attentively, letting you observe and appreciate the most minute details of human interaction.

By the time Kotov appears and shows Dimitri and Nadia what real tapdancing is all about, you're so enraptured you might laugh out loud. Kotov might be a shaggy Russian bear, but he moves like a Mexican jumping bean. His clunky but enthusiastic movements remind you why you love movies--if the rest of the picture hasn't done so already.

Another consummate auteur, American writer-director Charles Burnett, has been a critics' darling ever since his 1978 debut Killer of Sheep, about the life of a poor stockyard worker. Since that time, he has established himself as one of the most artistically ambitious (and intellectually rigorous) artists in Hollywood.

In working methods, he's become the African-American counterpart to Stanley Kubrick, taking years to write his scripts, find financing, direct, edit, and promote each new project. As a result, each new Burnett film gets several years' worth of buildup, and when it arrives, expectations are sometimes unfairly high.

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Matt Zoller Seitz