Letters from Abroad

Movies in Moscow

For all the dedicated readers of The Dickinsonian out there (I really hope these people exist), many of you will know that I was one of The Dickinsonian’s resident film critics this past year. With this Letter from Abroad, I thought I would combine my interests and talk about films here in Russia.

The particular Russian movie I would like to talk about is Sunstroke (Солнечный удар in Russian), which I saw this weekend. It is the latest movie from one of the most acclaimed (yet controversial) Russian directors, Nikita Mikhalkov. He is acclaimed for making one of Russia’s most well-known films, Burnt by the Sun, which won an Academy Award in 1994. He has always worked on such films as 12 (a remake of the American classic 12 Angry Men and my personal favorite) and The Barber of Siberia. What makes him such a controversial director is some of his most recent movies and his close political alliance to Putin. In 2010 and 2011, Mikhalkov decided to return to the setting of his most famous movie and make Burnt by the Sun 2 (in two parts). Instead of becoming a masterpiece of Russian filmmaking like he had hoped, the bloated films flopped financially and were panned by domestic and foreign critics for being historically revisionist, riddled with continuity errors and all-around poor.

So with Sunstroke, Mikhalkov decides to create yet another sweeping historical drama around the time of the Russian revolution, based off of a short story of the same name by Ivan Bunin (a Nobel Prize winner). The movie focuses on a young Russian soldier who is captured by Bolshevik forces, while flashing back to his brief love affair that occurred during his time on Volga steamboat. Overall, the film is beautiful with engaging and interesting shots to be found everywhere. The acting is convincing and heartbreaking, while the dialogue is thought-provoking at times. This movie is not perfect though and several things are holding it back from being the masterpiece that Burnt by the Sun was. First and foremost is the length of this movie. At three hours long, you need to have expert pacing or the audience will get worn out. That was not the case and there were many times that I was wondering whether certain scenes were really necessary. Speaking of unnecessary scenes, there were many scenes involving horrible CGI that definitely should not have made the cut (a particular scene with the lieutenant chasing a horribly depicted scarf comes to mind). Also, while some of the music was very good, other musical choices were poor and took me out of the scene. My final criticism relates to why Mikhalkov is so controversial right now. The movie did not feel historically inaccurate, but it did lack some nuance that makes historical movies great. The “bad guys” in this movie were almost all bad, while the “good guys” were almost all good.

So, if you are looking for a contemporary Russian film to watch, I do recommend Sunstroke (especially if you are a fan of Mikhalkov or Bunin). It may not be a masterpiece, but there are enough interesting aspects of the movie to make it worth your time. It remains to be seen how this film will be viewed internationally as it is set in Crimea (but filmed in Odessa, Ukraine prior to the crisis) and I could see this movie causing quite a stir at film festivals. Keep an eye out for when the film is released in America.