The staleness of Mikhalkov's oeuvre, if you can call it that, hasn't dissuaded Kino International from releasing what threatens to be the first of multiple box sets of the director's films. Entitled The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov: Volume 1, this first release includes two of the director's best known films, Burnt by the Sun (1994) and Oblomov (1980), as well as three lesser lights appearing for the first time in North America on DVD -- A Slave of Love (1976), Five Evenings (1979), and Without Witness (1983).
A Slave of Love (94 min., 1.33:1, 1976)
Slaves of Love earns high marks as Soviet propaganda, but falls short as a rom-com for its mirthless action, clichéd characters, and lack of spark between its leads.
Five Evenings (103 min., 1.33:1, black and white, 1979)
While visiting Moscow, Aleksandr (Stanislav Lyubshin) chances upon Tamara (Lyudmila Gurchenko). Though the two had only enjoyed a brief romantic fling seventeen years earlier, it's immediately apparent that neither has gotten over the other. Tamara, a factory shop steward, now lives with her college-age nephew in a Khruschev-era communal apartment. Wanting to appear successful, Aleksandr presents himself to Tamara as a chief engineer, but is actually a government chauffeur in a desolate outpost in Siberia. Over five acts, each corresponding to one of Aleksandr's five nights in Moscow, the pair seek against the odds a second chance at happiness.
With close attention to detail in the period set dressing, as well as forlorn life stories designed for maximum audience empathy, Five Evenings was a bittersweet bit of nostalgia perfectly suited to its audience's self-pitying sensibilities, but without much substance some thirty years on.
Oblomov (142 min., 1.37:1, 1980)
Approaching late middle-age, Oblomov is the absentee landlord of a declining estate, without a career or family, who sleeps away as much of his days as he can, rarely leaving his St. Petersburg apartment. His childhood companion Andrei Ivanovich Stoltz (Yuri Bogatyryov) is his only friend, apart from his cantankerous old manservant Zakhar. Stoltz is everything that Oblomov is not -- handsome, successful, dashing, and adventurous -- yet their friendship is genuine.
Stoltz enlists the genteel heiress Olga (Yelena Solovey) to save Oblomov from himself while Stoltz is away on four-months' travel throughout Western Europe. During their time together, Olga develops feelings for the revitalized Oblomov, but the return of Stoltz puts this tentative romance in jeopardy.
Without Witness (89 min., 1.33:1, 1983)
Burnt by the Sun (135 min., 1.62:1, 1994)
The harbinger of Kotov's fall is the unexpected arrival of NKVD secret police agent Mitia (Oleg Menshikov), the ex-lover of his Kotov's wife Marussia (Ingeborga Dapkunaite). Though his visit is unexpected and certainly frightful given that he's accompanied by two NKVD stooges, Mitia and Kotov mask themselves initially in the guise of pleasant civility and friendship. Though Kotov's fate will be a surprise to nobody, it seems to take forever to arrive.
Video & Audio:
Interlaced image, digital combing, moire effects, excess edge enhancement, washed-out or inconsistent colors, soft focus, and print damage bedevil these films as a whole, but the worst of the lot is Slave of Love which also suffers from atrocious image flutter.
All of the films include serviceable but unspectacular original Russia audio in stereo with optional English subtitles. Without Witness also offers an enhanced 5.1 Russian audio as well as English and French mono dubs which all sound horrid -- the 5.1 mix over emphasizes ambient noise, while the dubs feature talentless ham actors.