From Russia, With Love

Back in the 1990s, when I lived in London, a friend of mine urged me to see Burnt By The Sun, a film by the great Russian actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov. The film revolves around an eccentric artistic family surviving at their elegant dacha in the hinterlands of Stalinist Russia, not insignificantly because the daughter has married a revolutionary hero, Colonel Sergei Kotov (played by Mikhalkov). The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1995, but I only just got around to seeing it.

I was floored by the experience. The story is about how the daughter's childhood love comes back from the past, to destroy the family during one of Stalin's routine terror-purges. Mikhalkov's's great talent as a director and actor is that he sympathetically conveys both the revenge-driven former boyfriend and the nationalistic revolutionary hero that he has killed - both are destroyed by Russian history and Stalin. I learned a great deal about the old Soviet Union from this film, which, appropriately, Mikhalkov devotes to all of Stalin's victims.

Intrigued by this small masterpiece in film-making, I went down to our local DVD store to pull another of Mikhalkov's works. Expecting it would be a disappointment after Burnt by The Sun, I found lightning can strike twice. In 12, Mikhalkov does a masterful homage to Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, with 12 jurors deciding the fate of a Chechen boy who is accused of murdering his Russian step-father. It is, again, film-making at its unqualified best. It is no way a remake of Lumet's work, but a distinctly Russian original, and the scenes of the Chechen boy dancing were alone enough to make me want to jump on a plane and visit culture-rich Russia and its various ethnic groups.

In real life, Mikhalkov is associated with severely nationalistic political views, but in his films at least he conveys a great deal of humanity and sympathy for individuals of all stripes victimized by Russia's bloody history.

No question about it: Mikhalkov is the real thing. Or as Madame Mallory, a character in my novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, would say, "He is an artist. A great artist."