The release of this box set is a welcome development. Nikita Mikhalkov was a legend in Russia long before Burnt By The Sun won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1994.
Having recently viewed each title a couple of times (and having watched Burnt By The Sun for at least the tenth time) this reviewer can recommend each without reservation. To be certain, there is a element of enrichment at play: it’s often worthwhile to learn something about a time—and culture—still mostly unknown to western eyes and sensibilities. That’s what textbooks are for, right? The fact of the matter is that each of these films has a great deal to offer, aesthetically as well as historically. Rest assured, none of these movies will feel like a homework assignment. They are filled with humor, horror and the struggle for fulfillment (or, short of that, the struggle for peace); the same things that have shaped and influenced our history as humans regardless of language or locale.
These films do feel dated, but that’s inevitable and by no means a negative. In addition to being decades old, they were created in a different Russia and, in many regards, an entirely different world than exists now. Then there is the fact that three of the films are set earlier in the 20th (and one is a period piece from the 19th) Century. The question, then, is not so much how well they have aged so much as how convincing they are on their own terms. For several reasons, they hold up well and remain compelling achievements, which is what we should expect from a director of Mikhalkov’s stature.
The next, more crucial question—with all aesthetic considerations aside—is whether they are entertaining enough to entice a contemporary, non-Russian speaking audience. The verdict here is that they are, although this endorsement is offered with the winking caveat that they are only as appealing as any Russian film with sub-titles can be.
Are you still with me? If so, and you are prepared to dive in, you might be best advised to work backward in chronological order of release. Newcomers should certainly get acquainted with Mikhalkov via Burnt By The Sun (1994), followed by Without Witness (1983) and Oblomov (1980). The next two, Five Evenings (1979) and A Slave Of Love (1976) are perhaps the most challenging but, in their way, the most rewarding.
A Slave Of Love has previously been unavailable on DVD, so cinephiles who remember Jack Nicholson praising it in the ‘70s (as the back cover boasts), and people who have heard or read about this minor classic finally have an opportunity to see for themselves if it warrants the hype. The story is set in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution, and concerns silent film siren Olga (Yelena Solovey) who is working with a not-particularly inspired crew on a new project. Despite the lethargy, which is exacerbated by the summer heat, there is a palpable sense of urgency. The police keep dropping by and, although they are on location off in the country, a collective apprehension intensifies as rumors and rumblings from the city accumulate.
Eventually, Olga does her best acting away from the bright lights once she finds herself falling for the attractive and worldly cameraman Pototsky (Rodion Nakhapetov). The more she feigns indifference, the more obvious it is that she is smitten. At one point in the midst of a car ride that leaves the vehicle covered with country dirt (the presence of dust and grime sticks to every scene, working well to convey authenticity and serve as a metaphor for what is happening on and off the set), she laments the lack of meaning she finds in her work, despite her celebrity. She longs for a cause; to be something or, short of that, “useful—like a tree or the earth” (Ah, now that is Russian!). She gets her chance when it is revealed that her lover is a dissident, and wants her to help the cause. This sets up an epiphany wherein she is able to transcend her solipsism, but only by paying a price she could not have imagined.
Five Evenings was shot in less than a month, during a seasonal lull while Mikhalkov was filming the expensive and elaborate production Oblomov. The plot seems straightforward enough, but the languid pace and lack of traditional conflict (much less “action”) is deceptive: this film is a quiet powerhouse, and the careful build of emotional intensity reaches a memorable and deeply affecting conclusion. The setting is Moscow near the end of the ‘50s, and involves a fortuitous reunion between Tama (Lyudmila Gurchenko) and Alexander (Stanislav Lyubshin), who were once lovers before the war interrupted their lives 17 years earlier.
Shrewdly shot in black and white entirely inside Tama’s communal apartment, it is a dark film, literally. The interiors of the building are ill-lit and the empty spaces and shadows become characters, albeit in a way that never seems contrived. One feels the vibe of post-war Russian life, with its slowly eroding faith of God, country and self. As Tama and Alexander speak without complaint about their jobs and prospects, it is increasingly clear they are hoping to convince themselves as much as each other. It is also apparent that a great deal of attraction still lingers, while the sense of lost time and missed opportunity is obvious in their clipped exchanges and wary eyes. These are people who can barely allow themselves to dream, so the potential vulnerability risked by admitting they are lonely, scared and quite possibly still in love is unthinkable.
Eventually, inevitably, the truth (truths) can no longer be avoided or denied, and Alexander—after explaining the price he paid for refusing to immerse himself in the corrupted cesspool of the Soviet “system”—articulates the simple truth regarding the soul he has salvaged. “A man should remain true to himself,” he says softly, the hard years hanging around his neck like a noose. “It is a very advantageous position.” Considering all that he has seen and experienced, the simple integrity of this sentiment is a revelation: astute American viewers will be reminded why so many people still give up a great deal to come to this country.
The final scene of Five Evenings does not offer a resolution so much as a celebration of human resolve. In the last moments, once the couple has laid their feelings—and to a certain extent, their lives— on the line, the screen shifts from black-and-white to color (a tactic Francis Ford Copolla may have borrowed a few years later for Rumble Fish). It is an effulgent finale and a brilliant symbolic stratagem for a scene suffused with such unadulterated emotion. Once the credits roll it is difficult not to feel that this cast and crew have rendered what usually passes for drama in Hollywood seem facile and inauthentic.