Grandiose 'Burnt' sequel divides critics at Russian premiere

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Eight years in the making, with a cast of thousands, the sequel to one of the most acclaimed Russian films of the 1990s opens this week, amid both praise and accusations of egomania.

Nikita Mikhalkov, the actor-director who won an Oscar for his historical drama "Burnt by the Sun" in 1995, spent eight years working on a sequel, whose budget of at least 42 million dollars is a record for Russian cinema.

Mikhalkov is a controversial figure in Russia, accused of seizing every opportunity to curry favour with the Kremlin and dominating the Russian filmmaking scene.

Nonetheless, "Burnt by the Sun 2" has been selected to show in competition at this year's Cannes festival.

While the first "Burnt" film was set in the country house of a top Soviet official during Stalin's purges of the 1930s, the action-packed sequel follows the same characters through World War II trenches, evacuation and Nazi-occupied territory.

Thousands of guests queued to attend the film's premiere Saturday in the Kremlin, including top political figures such as nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky - but not Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is said to be a close friend of Mikhalkov.

Many critics slammed the film, which opens across Russia on Thursday, as overblown and unstructured.

"This 'great cinema' turned out to be the biggest fraud in the history of Russian filmmaking," Ksenya Larina said in a review for Echo of Moscow radio, blaming "the huge, inhuman ego of Nikita Mikhalkov."

"Over three hours, the viewer learns no more of the plot than from a two-minute trailer," the popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets complained, calling the film "a collection of separate episodes about the war."

The suave moustachioed director, 64, is a household name in Russia known for film work dating back to the 1960s.

But his image as a wealthy member of a privileged elite with close ties both to the Kremlin and the Soviet-era Commmunist Party grates with many.

His father, Sergei Mikhalkov, was a poet and author of the Stalin-era Soviet national anthem. He later rewrote the words in the Putin era.

While Putin was president, Nikita Mikhalkov made a television film for his birthday and signed an open letter calling for him to serve a third presidential term.

He has numerous official positions, serving as a cinema advisor for the Russian government and on the board of the trustees of the federal film-funding agency, as well as heading the Russian Filmmakers' Union.

His latest film's tagline, "Great cinema about a great war," prompted widespread mockery from bloggers.

Switching between 1941 and 1943, the film features a cold-blooded secret police agent who is attempting to track down a jailed Red Army colonel who managed to escape a Gulag camp at the start of the war.

The film also features brief scenes showing a heavily-accented, pipe-smoking Stalin.

Mikhalkov has said the film cost about 42 million dollars to make, although some reports have put its budget as high as 55 million dollars. It is unclear how much of this was state funding.

"Without making films in what I call a grand style, we cannot be a world power in cinema," Mikhalkov told state television on Saturday.

At the premiere, Mikhalkov said he wanted the film to remind the audience of how lucky they were to be alive.

"We would like people who are coming out of the auditorium... to take a breath and understand what happiness it is that we can simply breathe the air," he said.

The film won praise from critics for a scene showing an elite Kremlin regiment joining a bedraggled group of ex-prisoners in snow-covered trenches.

"What am I going to do with your elite? We've got a war going on here," a bluntly-spoken commander, played by Yevgeny Mironov, complains.

Later Mironov's character addresses a passionate tirade at "Comrade Stalin."

"Does anyone in the Kremlin understand how to beat the Germans?" he shouts despairingly.

The Afisha entertainment magazine praised the scene as "powerfully done."

But other critics decried barnstorming scenes for lurid details and poor taste - particularly scenes showing a Nazi pilot trying to defecate onto a Red Cross ship and a Soviet nurse being asked to flash her breasts by a dying soldier.

The scenes prompted "laughter in the auditorium," Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote.