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Movie Reviews

Burnt By The Sun  

It's not very often that I get to view any foreign title that isn't from France (the case in about 90% of my reviews, it seems), but, in Burnt By The Sun, here is a Russian film that is equal parts amusing, pretentious, and chilling.

The story takes place in Stalin-era Russia, beginning with a very peculiar scene where a young man, apparently an employee of the state, visits with his father before he goes on assignment. His father reads from the state newspaper, and talks about "undesirable guests", apparently referring to people who are in open hostility to the Stalin regime. As he chatters on, the phone rings endlessly, ignored. The young man takes out his pistol, empties it of bullets, points it to his own head, and slowly pulls the trigger, suggesting that he is hardening himself for the next time he pulls that trigger, apparently without an empty chamber.

This scene is suddenly exchanged for the Russian countryside, where peasants are in an uproar over movement of Stalin's tanks, which crush the wheat in the process. It takes persuading by the local retiring general, Kotov, to get the tanks to turn around. The sequence is light-hearted and comedic. Kotov complains that it is his day off, and in jest believes he is a scapegoat for those who want their problems solved quickly.

Later, a visitor appears in Kotov's house. Disguised as an old man, he starts teasing many people in the house in various ways. Eventually, it is revealed that he is the young man from the opening sequence. Apparently, he is an old family friend, who hasn't visited for nearly ten years. His presence is a blessing for most of the inhabitants of the large house. But occasionally, Kotov appears wary and suspicious. At first, I thought it was jealousy, owing to the fact that Kotov's wife and the young man were old "friends". But it is not until later when we know what he is really thinking.

For the most part, the movie plays as gentle human comedy, with the numerous family members and their quirks and activities. (Kotov's little daughter exhibits consistently adorable behaviour, even when the plot grows dire.) But it is the constant presence of the young visitor which gives the film some tension. Who exactly is this person, and what does he want? The answer gradually is revealed to us, and a quiet, peaceful environment (and film) ends with a vicious and cold-blooded climax.

The movie moves rather slowly. At about 2 hours and 20 minutes, some people might lose patience, but its stress on the ordinary, slice-of-life storyline does contribute to the shock of a viewer when the violent ending does arrive. Also, one probably would have to be somewhat familiar with Russia and its politics to really feel the impact. My own vagueness on describing the story's happenings probably gives you an indication of what I know. Still, the movie's message will probably make some sense even to a person like me, which is that in a Communist regime, it is to your peril if you put untested trust in everyone, even your friends.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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