Controversial Russian war epic rumbles into Cannes

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Nikita Mikhalkov, variously tagged a Stalinist, genius or opportunist, hit back at critics as his wartime epic, the most expensive movie ever made in Russia, rumbled into Cannes on Saturday.

"Burnt By The Sun 2: Exodus", a set-piece World War II sequel to his Oscar-winner shot 15 years back, kicks off with a scene showing Stalin's face shoved into an excessively large creamy cake.

"People can love me or hate me or find my films more or less good, but to say my latest movie glorifies Stalin is pure madness," Mikhalkov told a French paper.

Slammed at home for hob-nobbing with the political elite and ruling the country's Union of Cinematographers with an iron hand, Mikhalkov cast two of his children in the movie, which earned lukewarm praise from Cannes critics.

Its aim is to give a Russian take on Stephen Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" according to which "the Allies alone won World War II," he said.

Eight years in the making with a record 40-million-dollar budget, the highly-wrought two-and-a-half hour drama unspools in the trenches and battlefields of World War II as Germans arrive, killing and raping as they go.

Using hundreds of extras, Mikhalkov shows legions of civilians fleeing Luftwaffe attacks and motley groups of criminals and Gulag detainees turned soldiers joining fresh-faced youngsters from the Kremlin guard on the front.

"It's not a war film, it's a love film staged against the backdrop of this terrible war and Stalinism that is the real centre," he said.

The plot picks up characters from his elegiac 1995 film "Burnt by the Sun" to recount the separation and love between a father -- played by himself -- and daughter.

"I wanted to deal with the metaphysics of destruction," the 64-year-old director said at a press conference. A planned follow-up to the movie will take on the subject of rebirth, he said.

"The film is an attempt to awaken the consciousness of the young, to make them imagine what it felt like to live in the frozen trenches."

Released in Russia, where some critics applauded the patriotic epic that is unrecognisable in style from its slow-moving predecessor, the movie has picked up a mere seven million dollars in four weeks and ranks in ninth place at the box office.

Fending off a barrage of tough questions at Cannes, Mikhalkov said he picked up a mere one million dollars in state funding for a film "which will help our industry to survive."

In Russia, many savaged the sequel as an incoherent mishmash from a director whose talent has descended into egomania.

It was, declared the film critic of the popular Echo of Moscow radio, "the biggest fraud in the history of Russian film-making."

With a film career stretching back five decades, Mikhalkov is a household name in Russia.

His first feature as director, "At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger At Home" from 1974, in which he starred, remains one of his most acclaimed, along with "An Unfinished Piece For A Mechanical Piano" from 1977.

"In the past he was the author of films that were like nothing else in Soviet cinema. He is a person who has dissipated his talent so much that he lost it," said film critic Mikhail Trofimenkov.

Mikhalkov has talked of a long-term friendship with Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and in 2007 directed a documentary about the then-president for his 55th birthday.

Putin visited the set of "Burnt by the Sun 2" and visited Mikhalkov's dacha on the director's 60th birthday.

Mikhalkov's father, Sergei Mikhalkov, wrote the lyrics of the Soviet national anthem, and the family grew up in a life of official privilege.

But Mikhalkov's alleged closeness to the elite is questionable, said film critic Anton Dolin.

"This information usually comes from Mikhalkov and his entourage, and also from his opponents, for whom friendship with Putin is a guilty verdict," Dolin told AFP.

In April top directors including Alexander Sokurov wrote an open letter slating Mikhalkov's leadership of the Union of Cinematographers.

Commenting on the letter, Mikhalkov said on Saturday: "I have my opinions and offering my point of view is the basis of democracy."

© 2010 AFP

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