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COLLECTIVE GUILT

For now, citizens of the New Russia have more important things to do than revitalize their creaky old movie industry. Like keeping the St. Petersburg mafia at bay. Getting the telephones to work. Importing millions of hair dryers, brassieres and car alarms that play the lambada, usually from the United Arab Emirates. And there's that little thing in Chechnya.

Making Russian movies that aren't just like the Russian movies of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties will just have to wait.

In the meantime, voters of our own country's Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences--people with moss growing out of their ears, most of them--made a nice gesture earlier this year by giving the Oscar for Best Foreign Film to Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun. They could have chosen the brilliant and inventive Macedonian war film Before the Rain; instead, they cut the Russians some slack by picking Sun, a workmanlike, occasionally profound example of old-fashioned "political" moviemaking driven by character, in which the offscreen bogeyman is--who else?--Josef Stalin.

During the Cold War, of course, there were very few "safe" subjects for Mikhalkov or any of his fellow artists. They could adapt certain innocuous literary classics. They could dramatize, for the umpteenth time, the appalling sacrifices the Soviets made in defeating Hitler. And following Nikita Khrushchev's famous 1956 speech denouncing Stalin and the "cult of personality," they could make anti-Stalinist movies--while taking continued care along the border of Marxist-Leninist correctness.

Now the Wall is down and capitalism is up. But Russian filmmakers of Mikhalkov's ilk (he was born in 1945, studied at the state film school in Moscow and is eager to point out that he was never a Party member) are clearly baffled by their own sudden freedoms. Set on a single summer day in 1936, Burnt by the Sun is a frankly Chekhovian tale of political betrayal and personal revenge that seems limited by the same codes and cautions that characterized Russian moviemaking in the decades when the KGB was looking over every director's shoulder for signs of bourgeois decadence or "formalism." Certainly, Mikhalkov's anti-Stalinist sentiments are nothing new, and they are no more strongly expressed than in, say, Chukhrai's Clear Skies--and that exemplary film was made way back in 1961.

Fact is, anti-Stalinism is as established a convention in the former Soviet Union as Sylvester Stallone knocking off bad guys is in our country.

Let us press onward. Although he usually limits himself to minor roles in his own films (A Slave of Love, Dark Eyes, etc.), Mikhalkov here takes on the added burden of playing the lead: Colonel Kotov, a silvery hero of the Revolution who's now enjoying his rewards in the country with his young wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), and their precocious six-year-old child, Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov, the director's real-life daughter).

Historically minded viewers cannot help imagining the terrors being enacted offscreen, elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but for the easygoing, avuncular colonel and his family, life is an idyll--morning laughter with the gaggle of eccentrics and family members who share the pleasant dacha, a minor mission on horseback to shoo pesky soldiers away from farmer friends resisting collectivization, then a sunny afternoon at the lakefront, where a brass band plays. Mikhalkov ably satirizes a gas-mask drill, and a platoon of starched young Pioneers marches into the water for a swim only at the tweet of a leader's whistle.

As in the dramas of Chekhov, however, a visitor is about to invade the dream, disturb the social equilibrium and rouse old ghosts. A dashing and highly theatrical young man named Mitia (Oleg Menchikov) arrives at the house wearing a beard and disguise, useful Russian symbolism for the fact that his energetic manner, frantic piano-playing and exuberant comic gibes conceal a secret agenda--maybe even a touch of madness. Mitia, we learn, has been absent from the dacha for ten years; now that he's back, we find out little by little about his past romance with Maroussia, the particulars of his long disappearance, the ways in which the Stalinist terror reaches into the lives of even those seemingly insulated from it.

In fact, the only real villain of the piece is Stalin himself, whose presence we feel but whose grim face we never see until the end, when it rises, ominous and huge, on the rippling surface of a banner lofted over a wheat field. Kotov, Mitia and Maroussia are all guilty of something, but each in a way is also an innocent buffeted by fate. You can feel a tragedy brewing in the film's second hour--symbolized by an ambiguous fireball that now and then burns its way across the screen--but Mikhalkov's characters are not its perpetrators; Uncle Joe is.

There's nothing very remarkable about that, and as moving and startling as Burnt by the Sun can be in places, it's awfully conventional, right down to the little girl who has no idea what is about to befall her family. Mikhalkov--whose brother is the director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) and whose father wrote the lyrics of the Soviet national anthem--has certainly ventured beyond Stalin's old iron prescription for "socialist realism" in the arts, but the vestiges of Soviet culture are all over his work. This is an impressive effort, but if you're looking for really new directions in Russian filmmaking--and who wouldn't be?--look elsewhere.

 
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