Picks and Pans Review: Burnt by the Sun

updated 05/22/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Nikita Mikhalkov, Nadia Mikhalkov

At the start of this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film it's easy to suspect that the projectionist has mixed up the reels. In the opening scene, a man empties a gun of bullets and then squeezes the trigger while pointing the muzzle at his head. In quick succession, soldiers in tanks storm a wheat field, a flustered woman downs medical potions, and an attractive husband, wife and child bathe together in a hothouse sauna. Who are these people?

Hang in there, because the answers become painfully clear. For this is Russia in 1936, the start of Stalin's great terror, when a few words of denunciation were enough to send someone away forever. After its initial scenes, Burnt by the Sun settles into what appears to be Chekhov territory, with several generations of a bourgeois family gathering at their summer home. They picnic, sing and recall the good times before the revolution, and they do all this under the protectorship of a family member by marriage, Colonel Kotov (Mikhalkov), a hero of 1917 who still truly believes. Into their midst comes Mitia (Oleg Menchikov), the ex-lover of Kotov's young wife (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), who has been mysteriously absent for about 10 years and isn't volunteering why he has come back.

Much of this film is comically elegiac, depicting swimming trips that are disrupted by the civil defense volunteers, who insist on putting gas masks on the bathing-suited masses, and lazy afternoons spent making love. But each scene has a sense of underlying menace. When the movie comes to its tragic end, all that has preceded it takes on a deeper meaning, and the sadness grows. (R)

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