Prisoner of the Mountains
1996, NR, 98 min. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Starring Djemal Sikharulidze, Oleg Menshikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr..
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Tue., May 28, 2002
As recorded by history, war reduces individuals to proxies for group values or interests and is mostly analyzed in terms of long-term sociopolitical import. But as experienced, it often boils down to brief human encounters, private meaning and actions that reflect personal, not ideological motivations. Russian novelist-filmmaker Sergei Bodrov reinforces this point with sure-handed subtlety in his moving update of Leo Tolstoy’s story, Prisoner of the Caucasus. During a guerrilla uprising in modern Chechnya, two Russian soldiers are taken prisoner by a Muslim rebel named Abdoul-Mourat, who wants to trade them for a son being held by the Russians. As they lie chained in a stable waiting for hostage negotiations to unfold, the soldiers ñ naïve, inexperienced Vanya (the director’s son, Sergei Bodrov, Jr.) and Sacha (Menshikov), a mordant jokester who’s fighting in his third war ñ develop guarded friendships with Abdoul’s mute handyman and his pubescent daughter, Dina. Later, a display of bravery by the prisoners even wins them the respect of some of the local rebel fighters. Bodrov doesn’t insult our intelligence with simpleminded “Down deep, we’re all just people” revelations. He does, however, clear out space for his characters to gain mutual understanding through humor, small kindnesses, and freely expressed cultural pride. Menshikov, last seen here in 1994’s Burnt by the Sun>, makes Sacha a truly memorable character ñ a merry nihilist whose irreverence and unrepentant Russian chauvinism inspires grudging admiration and amusement in his sober Muslim captors. Simple, tender-hearted Vanya flirts innocently with Dina, who happily reciprocates even as she acknowledges the absolute limits that circumstances place on their relationship. One of the many troubling questions suggested by this film is how war, with all its unimaginable carnage and vast destructive power, can manage to proceed despite most of its participants’ inability to fully demonize their foes or sustain hatred on a 24-hour basis. We acknowledge our basic human commonalities, yet continue to waste each other anyway. On the other hand, as Prisoner’s powerful ending illustrates, we’re also capable of inexplicable displays of compassion toward those we have every reason to despise. Little about Prisoner of the Mountains conforms to our familiar set of movie expectations, and disconcerting tonal shifts from sorrow to near slapstick or bleak vérité grit to whimsical high style, are common. Yet Bodrov’s seemingly eccentric artistic decisions eventually resolve into an image we can all recognize as authentic: ourselves in all our strange, sad, unfathomable complexity.