It is an unbreakable tradition that Russian cosmonauts and foreign guests watch this movie the day before they blast off aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Apart from the cultural significance this indicates, it shows where the heart and the spirit of the movie lie, where and how White Sun of the Desert transcends whatever genre it might be filed under and comes on its own.
A soldier returning home to his wife through the desert is entrusted by a regiment of the Red Army with escorting the harem of a local bandit, Black Abdullah, while the regiment looks for him. Things get complicated when he takes them to a nearby village by the Caspian sea where Abdullah arrives shortly after.
An attempt at a genre classification of White Sun of the Desert gives the term Ostern or eastern, the Soviet equivalent of the western. In some ways there is a resemblance, the landscape, horses, guns and bandits but the absurdity of the plot itself would feel more at ease in a crazed spaghetti western like Blindman than a John Ford western, and the feeling and mood belongs to a whole different worldview, with different sensibilities from either American or Italian westerns. To borrow a Japanese term, the mood of the movie carries some Russian form of "shushigaku", the sadness of things, as if all things and men carry within them an inherent sadness and all joy is not without the shadow of death. Being Balcan myself, I can see Emir Kusturicha in all this.
In that sense White of the Desert is like a desert carnival, an absurd adventure with comedic undertones through which blows a breeze of sadness, regret, loss and yearning. An old customs officer that realizes his life lost meaning the day he stopped caring and that he has to make a final stand and redeem himself, his wife that wanders the beach like a lost animal, her life meaningless without her husband, Sayid, a random encounter the hero Sukhov digs out of the desert, who is looking for the man who killed his father, nothing else having any importance or worth in his life, Sukhov himself a soldier returning home to his wife through the desert after years of war, Abdullah's harem who feel stranded and alone without their man even though he is a bandit and murderer of men and they can't comprehend how Sukhov can only have one wife.
And then you have the desert and the Caspian landscape. It surrounds everything with a mystical quality all its own, like everything happens in some corner of the world no one will ever know about and one day the sand will cover everything or the last man will just go out wandering in the desert and leave the small village behind forever, like Shukov does in the end of the movie. I have a weird fascination with the desert for this reason exactly, because deserts are places that have exhausted their future and thus have an inherent existential quality. I think this is personified in the three old men with white beards that sit at the bottom of a wall, barely speaking a word the entire movie, like an ancient lifeform that is now one with the land.
What really makes White Sun of the Desert so good is that what I mentioned above may exist only in my mind. It's never self conscious about what it does, never explicit in its symbolism and drama or calling attention to itself as anything more than a purely entertaining adventure romp. The comedic timing is good in that old fashioned way, the locations are beautiful, the acting is neat and the action is OK but nothing to write home about. It's the mood that makes the difference here though and for that alone it deserves a watch or two. Strongly recommended.