Set in the late 1930s, in the final few years before WWII, Burnt By The Sun follows a Colonel (Comdiv) of the Russian Revolution who falls victim to the 'Great Purge' - when Stalin had many of his former fellow revolutionaries executed without trial. A period characterised by paranoia, police surveillance, persecution and repression... Burnt By The Sun represents it as strangely peaceful.
Much of the action follows 6-year-old Nadia, daughter of Colonel Sergei Kotov, and as such, scenes carry a child-like naivety despite the hefty political and relational issues it deals with. The first scene of the film is my favourite; a group of tanks prepares to practice manoeuvres over a villages wheat fields. Only Colonel Kotov can use his high standing to stop them. Interrupted on his day off, he rides on horseback to save the crops, reassure the villagers, inspire the front line soldiers, and shout down their commander over the radio. Crisis averted, his family wait for him in the middle of the field, clothed in white and bathed in sunlight. This is a great man, with the perfect family. It's extremely fanciful, but it paints a picture so perfect, one can't help but fall in love with this family. Subsequent scenes introduce the larger family, including 3 grandmothers and several others (I'm not sure how they're all related). The household is crazy, crowded and happy.
Into this melting pot of the generations comes Mitya - who is immediately recognised and welcomed in by everyone except Sergei and Nadia. Maroussia (the wife) introduces him to young Nadia as 'Uncle Mitya', though it soon becomes clear that she and Mitya have a much more intimate past.
Apart from Sergei, who is the subject of the film, the centre of it all is Nadia. Nadia (Nadine, in french) is extremely cute, and extremely mature for her age. She sings, tap dances, plays piano, while also asking profound and challenging questions of the adults. She doesn't want to play with her dolls, she wants to spend time with her Dad, and learn about his life in the army, and his dedication to the motherland. He tells her that her feet will never be callused like his, because of the work his generation has done to instil peace and equality in the country. Meanwhile Mitya and Maroussia have a moment on the riverside, tugging at that thread that will slowly unravel their perfect life...
The imagery is beautiful, and the pacing is decadent and poignant. The film takes its time for many of the shots - they play out in real time without using editing tricks. Although this makes the film long, and feels awfully meandering at times, it also gives the eventual conclusion gravity, and lends the whole film a particular weight and depth. It's a film to ponder, and to dwell in.
Apart from being extremely long, the main problem with the film is that it is difficult to follow without knowledge of the historical context; I was lost. I enjoyed the brightness and optimism, and the crazy happy family, and the heroic father in Kotov - as well as the tension between Kotov, Mitya and Maroussia. I didn't enjoy not knowing what was going on. It might have just been the dodgy subtitle track I watched it with, but it was never clear to me exactly who Mitya was. I got as far as knowing that he and Maroussia were lovers, but I missed the fact that they were formally engaged, before he was sent away on Kotovs orders. I knew Maroussia had slit her wrists, but didn't realise it was a suicide attempt after Mitya failed to return.
In sum: Burnt By The Sun is beautiful to look at, and well worth a watch, especially if you have a grasp of 20th century Russian history. Its portrait of a family is warm and inviting, while its handling of difficult political and social issues is in stark contrast. It's like looking back at that time through a child's eyes. A poor little girl who will soon have to grow up so fast.