Although Russian director Sergei Bodrov has made half a dozen features and won a fistful of awards since the mid-'80s, he is virtually unknown in the United States--despite having lived in Los Angeles on and off for several years. Orion Classics is now distributing his 1996 film, Prisoner of the Mountains, on the strength of its Public Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival; with luck, American recognition is on its way.
Bodrov has updated a Tolstoy story to the setting of the modern Russian-Chechnyan conflict. Bodrov doesn't need to take artistic liberties with Tolstoy; the original story was set during bloody Russian-Chechnyan conflicts 150 years ago.
Sacha (Oleg Menshikov) and Vania (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.) are two Russian soldiers assigned to a remote corner of the Caucasus. Vania is a naive young recruit; Sacha is a sergeant hardened by years of combat. On patrol along a mountain road, they're ambushed by guerrillas from a local village. When the rest of their comrades are killed, Sacha and Vania are taken hostage by Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze), the elderly patriarch of a remote village that seems untouched by the modern world. Despite its overall appearance of poverty, the village is breathtakingly beautiful, an outpost of stone atop a plateau: Green fields lie below, cut by clear rivers.
Abdoul-Mourat hopes to arrange a prisoner exchange to free his son, who has been jailed by the Russian occupiers in the nearest sizable town. He assigns his mute relative Hasan to guard the hostages, while his adolescent daughter, Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva), brings them food and water.
As if captivity and the threat of execution were not enough, the soldiers' plight is aggravated by their being shackled together by the ankles. Sacha is contemptuous of the wet-behind-the-ears Vania, resentful that the green soldier performed poorly during the ambush. He derides Vania, telling him that he will emerge unscathed while Vania is sure to be killed or castrated. Sacha establishes that he's a tough son of a bitch.
At the same time, Sacha exudes a positive life force; he is a more fully developed personality than Vania. As unexpected delays attenuate their imprisonment, Sacha charms Hasan, charms Vania, even charms himself...to the point that he comes to love Vania, despite the boy's military ineptitude. When the two finally get drunk on Hasan's hidden stash of vodka--the townspeople are supposed to be teetotaling Muslims--Sacha, a much less cold-hearted fellow than he pretends to be, throws an arm around Vania and pledges, "I will get you out of here."
At the same time, Vania, without really trying, is winning the heart of Dina. Her age is unclear--she looks to be perhaps 15, though the actress portraying her was only 12--but, as she matter-of-factly explains, "We marry early here."
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There are further complications, and it should give nothing away to say that war again intervenes and at least some of the characters come to a sad end. The timelessness of the locale emphasizes the film's clear subtext: the endless cycle of tragedies that inevitably springs from such ethnic blood-feuds.
Except for a few restrained moments of fantasy, the story is told in a straightforward manner. Bodrov relies more on his actors' performances than on flashy visual style to achieve his effects. Bodrov Jr. is fine as Vania, but Menshikov and Mekhralieva are the ones who steal the show, through absolutely opposite performances. Menshikov is apparently a star in Russia, and it's easy to see why. From his earliest scenes, even when his character is being a dick, he is effortlessly charismatic; he has that star "thing" that glows from the screen.
If Menshikov is both an obvious star and an experienced actor, Mekhralieva is the exact opposite. Shortly before shooting, Bodrov found the 12-year-old in a local school and immediately cast her. He knew the camera would love her face as we do. In a totally natural, unforced way, seemingly without trying, she makes Dina the character we most care about.
Prisoner of the Mountains.
Oleg Menshikov, Sergei Bodrov, Jr., Jemal Sikharulidze, Susanna Mekhralieva, Alexei Jharkov, and Valentina Fedotova. Written by Arif Aliev, Sergei Bodrov, and Boris Giller; based on the story Prisoner of the Caucasus by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Sergei Bodrov.