'Barber' Defends Russia's Honor

"He's Russian. That explains a lot."

With this slogan - and the $45 million film it promotes - director Nikita Mikhalkov aims to instill a feeling of dignity and patriotism in his fellow countrymen and challenge Hollywood's popular depiction of Russians as bad guys.

For many critics, Mikhalkov's just-premiered "The Barber of Siberia" carries another hidden message: Mikhalkov is offering himself as the new tsar. His solution to the problems of contemporary Russia is to return to the pre-Revolutionary values of Orthodoxy and monarchy.

For the Russia depicted by the nation's top director is a truly great and powerful country, despite hard-drinking generals, officers exiled to Siberia, and wild, uncontrolled passions that rage across all levels of society. Mikhalkov has said the film is about Russia as it should be.

Political statements aside, the three-hour epic of love and self-sacrifice told against the historical backdrop of Alexander III's rule and filmed in Moscow, the Krasnoyarsk taiga and abroad is an emotionally intense, touching and beautiful movie.

The film, written by Rustam Ibragimbekov, tells the story of officer cadet Andrei Tolstoy, (Oleg Menshikov), who falls in love with Jane, an American woman played by Julia Ormond. Jane is posing as the daughter of eccentric American inventor Douglas McCracken (Irish actor Richard Harris), who is building a tree-chopping machine dubbed the "barber of Siberia."

Jane is supposed to persuade officials to give the project government support. Her target is General Radlov, who happens to be the director of Andrei's military school. The general - colorfully played by the great actor Alexei Petrenko as a vain but likable and very Russian character subject to long, violent drinking binges - falls in love with the pretty foreigner. Thus the love triangle is formed.

In the action that ensues, Andrei shows his noble character by sacrificing himself to protect Jane's dignity.

Russian cadets are portrayed as well-educated young men who speak several languages. Andrei - a young, naive, idealistic Russian aristocrat - contrasts sharply with Jane, a worldly, cynical, chain-smoking American businesswoman.

Menshikov and the four other actors playing cadets lived at the Kostroma military academy for almost three months to absorb the spirit of camaraderie among officers.

For Menshikov, 38, it is clearly a bit of a stretch playing a naive 20 year old. He is famous for his complex portrayal of an NKVD officer in Mikhalkov's 1995 Oscar-winning film "Burnt by the Sun," and was offered the role of Andrei 10 years ago soon after the screenplay was written. Despite his age, Menshikov coped well with the role; only his eyes betrayed the actor's greater maturity.

Mikhalkov said he chose Ormond after interviews with Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell and Jodie Foster for Ormond's "virtuoso technique" and British training, which is very close to the Russian acting school. Ormond gives a generally strong performance, though she fails to bring across the tragedy in the ending.

Mikhalkov's positive Russian characters are intended to counterbalance Hollywood's depiction of Russians as flathead mafiosi. Although the director has been criticized for pandering to Western audiences, he said he refused to follow the advice of Kevin Costner, who told him that Americans were portrayed too harshly. Costner thought American audiences wouldn't be pleased with the portrayal of Jane as an easy woman and a scene depicting an American sergeant as an ignorant buffoon.

"Look what kind of Russians they show in movies like "Armageddon" and "The Saint," Mikhalkov said at a news conference before the premiere. "It is inadmissible to keep talking about ourselves like we are people without any dignity."

While some critics have called the film a "great masterpiece," others saw it as a "total failure." The director has been accused of making a heavily ideological, pompous film, and the actors have been accused of overacting. But despite a number of weak turns in the plot, there are touching moments that left many in the audience with red eyes.

The boisterous scenes of Maslenitsa, the Slavic answer to Mardi Gras, spoiled the movie for many viewers. Mikhalkov has been criticized for betraying his artistic sense for the sake of the film's distribution in the West, showing Russian kitsch with generals downing vodka and then devouring the glasses, dancing bears and barrels of caviar.

The movie, in which 70 percent of the dialogue is in English, will open in Europe in May and will be shown in Cannes before arriving on U.S. screens in the fall. American producer Guy East, responsible for the film's worldwide distribution, said he is confident "Barber" has a good chance of winning an Oscar for either best foreign film or best film.

Mikhalkov said he is thinking of filming a sequel. So instead of running for president, maybe the director will stick to what he does well.

"The Barber of Siberia" ("Sibirsky Tsiryulnik") plays in Russian at the Pushkinsky Hall of the Rossia Movie Theater daily until March 4 at 11:30 a.m., 3 p.m., 6:30 and 10. The theater is located at 2 Pushkin Square. Tel. 229-2111. Nearest metro: Pushkinskaya. The film also plays Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 5 and 8:30 at the Cinema Center, 15 Druzhinnikovskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 205-7306. Nearest metro: Krasnopresnenskaya.