As a film which bombed at the box office and was derided by critics, Burnt By the Sun 2: Citadel seems an unlikely pick for Oscar success. But when the final list of nominees is announced later this year, the Russian turkey will take its place alongside critically acclaimed golden eagles in the race for next year’s Academy award for best foreign language film.
The selection of Nikita Mikhalkov’s second world war epic – which will compete against Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear winner A Separation and Cannes hit Declaration of War – has angered the Russian film community. Vladimir Menshov, the chairman of the country’s Oscars committee, has publicly called on Mikhalkov to withdraw his film. Apart from anything else, he said, there was something “inappropriate” about the veteran film-maker, who is a member of the committee, having put his own movie forward for consideration.
“This film, which came out in May, had an absolute critical drubbing … it was never shown anywhere internationally,” Menshov told Echo of Moscow radio on Tuesday. “And most importantly, it was a catastrophe at the box office.”
Menshov, himself an Oscar winner, said films such as Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena, which won a special jury prize at Cannes, and Alexander Sokurov’s Faust, which picked up the Golden Lion at Venice, ought to have been considered instead. He called on Mikhalkov to withdraw his film before 1 October, when the Russians are due to formally present their entry to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“Now I am asking what needs to be done to make the author recognise his defeat or at least lower his pride,” said Menshov. “Maybe he can sit down, think, and choose a different way.”
Citadel is the second part of the sequel to Mikhalkov’s Burnt By the Sun, which won the foreign language Oscar in 1995 and the 1994 Cannes Grand Prix. As well as directing, Mikhalkov plays the lead role of Comdiv Sergei Petrovich Kotov in all three films in the series.
The Russian daily newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti described the decision to pick Citadel for the Oscars as the triumph of “cronyism” over “common sense”. Mikhalkov has strong ties with the Russian political establishment and has been photographed taking tea with Vladimir Putin, for whom he once filmed a tribute movie to celebrate the prime minister’s 55th birthday. He heads the state-backed union of cinematographers and held the premiere for the first part of Burnt By the Sun 2: Exodus, in the Kremlin.
With a combined budget of at least $40m, Burnt By the Sun 2 is the most expensive Russian film of all time, but neither Citadel nor Exodus performed at the box office, with hauls of $5m and $7m respectively. Critics accused Mikhalkov of deliberately crafting his two-part tale of life and death on the second world war’s eastern front in a form pleasing to Russia’s political establishment, and described the acting performances as poor.
On its rare forays outside Russia the film has proved more popular with critics. It received a standing ovation (though no prizes) at Cannes, and was described by the Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt as “a much, much better film than its Russian reviews would indicate”. In order to enter the final race for the Oscar, Citadel will have to pass a further selection process: an Academy committee will choose the final five nominees for the prize from dozens of entries from around the world.