Sixteen years after “Burnt by the Sun” won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, director Nikita Mikhalkov has unveiled the first of a two-part sequel set during World War II in a screening at the Kremlin.
Mikhalkov said last year that he wanted the film premiere to take place on Red Square on Victory Day, but settled for Saturday at the Great Kremlin Palace where close to 6,000 people, including politicians, celebrities and World War II veterans, watched the three-hour movie.
“We intentionally showed this movie at the beginning of the commemorations for the 65th anniversary of the victory,” Mikhalkov said before the film began. “We were confident that to understand what this victory cost, we should see what our people went through.”
The film resurrects the two main characters, Colonel Kotov and the NKVD agent who betrays him, who were both seemingly killed off in the first film, which was set in 1936, and plunges the duo into World War II.
With a budget of $55 million, "Burnt by the Sun 2" is the most expensive Russian movie ever made, and viewers can see where the money was spent as the film unfolds with huge, impressive battle scenes featuring thousands of extras and numerous exploding trains and planes.
Mikhalkov, who has spent almost a decade working on the film, told Russia One television that he had built a bridge for the film and allowed locals to use it. When he blew it up for the film, the locals, he said, berated him for blowing up "their bridge."
"Burnt by the Sun 2" features almost the same cast as the original film. Mikhalkov plays Kotov, his daughter Nadezhda again plays his daughter in the film and Oleg Menshikov reprises his role as the NKVD officer. The only exception is Kotov’s wife, originally portrayed by Ingeborga Dapkunaite, who is now played by Viktoria Tolstoganova.
Kotov, who was taken away by the NKVD at the end of the first film presumably to be shot, is actually alive and goes into battle after escaping from a camp to fight in a penal battalion. With the war going badly, Josef Stalin orders Menshikov's character, whose suicide attempt in the first film failed, to find Kotov, the once-respected colonel he had condemned.
Actor Maxim Sukhanov is a revelation as a terrifyingly unpredictable Stalin who can order a man killed at one moment and smile and joke the next.
The film is packed with cameo roles for many of the best Russian actors in cinema today, including Valentin Gaft, Dmitry Dyuzhev, Artur Smolyaninov, Yevgeny Mironov and Sergei Makovetsky, to name just a few.
"Burnt by the Sun 2" will take part in the competition section of this year's Cannes Festival. Mikhalkov took the Grand Prix prize in 1994 with the first film, but how international critics and audiences will take to the sequel remains to be seen.
The sequel was a hit for many at the screening Saturday.
"Three hours! Everybody was afraid about the length, but it goes in one breath," said director Fyodor Bondarchuk.
"It’s Mikhalkov’s tools. It’s immersion, it’s attention, it’s rhythm. There will be a lot of discussion, a lot of criticism, but it’s worth watching, period.”
“I’m astonished by the greatness of this picture," said Karen Shakhnazarov, the head of the Mosfilm studio and a respected director. "I can assure you that this the greatest movie we have in modern Russian cinematography.”
But the film is also evoking as many negative reactions. Mikhalkov is a controversial figure for some because of his vocal, unswerving support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and for his domination of the Russian film industry in his role as head of the cinematographers union.
Putin was supposed to turn up to the premiere but didn't. He did, however, call by telephone later to congratulate the director, said Mikhalkov's press service.
Even before the film appeared, bloggers had a heyday mocking the movie poster, which shows Mikhalkov and the tagline "Great Cinema about a Great War." In one instance, a blogger photoshopped Robocop's head onto Mikhalkov.
Columnist Andrei Arkhangelsky, writing in Vzglyad on Sunday, said the movie had some very strong moments but failed as a whole, especially for trying to put forward the idea that "God was on our side, and thanks to the war, God is again with us."
“Burnt by the Sun 2” will premiere in movie theaters April 22.