Ivan Bunin was the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but that did not exactly thrill the Soviets, since he was living in Paris at the time as a “White émigré.” Among the White or Menshevik-affiliated exiles, Bunin was a rock star, but it was a small group. Nikita Mikhalkov reminds us why so few dissidents escaped the 1920s Red Terror in his fusion of Bunin’s nonfiction Cursed Days and the titular short story. Mikhalkov remains a problematic figure, but there is no question Sunstroke is one of his best films in years, which finally releases today on DVD.
It is 1920. A large contingent of surrendered White officers are being processed for their promised return to Russian society. In exchange for relinquishing their arms and accepting the Soviet state they have even been promised the opportunity to immigrate. It is all very depressing for an honorable officer like the unnamed lieutenant, but his heart was already broken a lifetime ago in 1907. As he endures the boredom and petty indignities of the makeshift POW camp, his mind drifts back to his brief, intoxicating affair with a mystery woman while they were both traveling on a Volga steamship.
Sadly, it would only last one mad night, but the memory still lingers. Even the day after, largely spent in the company of Egoriy, a plucky street urchin takes becomes bittersweet in retrospect. Indeed, the 1907 narrative is classic Bunin, somewhat reminiscent of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” In contrast, the 1920 storyline is all Soviet, through and through. It also happens to be the more powerful strand. Although Mikhalkov eventually brings the twains together in a way that genuinely pays off, the 1907 narrative really could have been handled as one or two long flashbacks. In contrast, it is quite haunting to watch the loved-and-lost romantic lieutenant facing the utter end of his era, with dignity and sad resignation. (At least his comrade still has his loyal hunting dog Syabr).
Everyone should generally know how 1920 ended for Russia, but Mikhalkov still manages to surprise us. He is a talented filmmaker, but there is no question he is tainted by his friendship with Putin and his own unprecedented consolidation of power within the Russian film industry. We give him credit for calling for the release of Oleg Sentsov, which he really didn’t have to do, but by defending Russian aggression and imperialism in Ukraine, he has become what he condemns in the third act of Sunstroke and throughout the Burnt By the Sun trilogy.
Regardless, Mikhalkov’s stitching together of Bunin is truly epic in a tragically lyrical way that totally falls within his cinematic wheelhouse. He can balance the dark romanticism of his Dark Eyes with a historical indictment in the tradition of Wajda’s Katyn. Frankly, this film deserves more attention, but it is Mikhalkov’s own darned fault it has not enjoyed the festival love bestowed on his earlier films.
In addition to his bravura filmmaking techniques, Mikhalkov gets the benefit of some fine ensemble work. Milos Bikovic is terrific as Syabr’s owner, the aristocratic naval officer, Baron Nikolay Alexandrovich Gulbe-Levitsky, Vitaliy Kishchenko is wildly but believable unhinged as the defiant cavalry captain, and Kiril Boltaev is wryly sardonic as the Cossack Captain. However, nobody can withstand the furious power of Miriam Sekhorn as Rozaliia Zemliachka, a Communist revolutionary figure and architect of Soviet mass murder. She is just a chilling, show-stopping tour de force. Ironically, Martinsh Kalita and the Ukrainian-born Viktoriya Solovyova aren’t nearly as engaging as the star-crossed lovers.