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 the fact that he has lived on and off in Los Angeles for several years. Orion Classics is now distributing his 1996 film Prisoner of the Mountains, presumably on the strength of its Public Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. With luck, American recognition is on its way.
Prisoner of the Mountains is based on a story by Tolstoy; Bodrov has updated the setting to the current Russian-Chechnyan conflict. This doesn't constitute taking liberties with Tolstoy, since the original story was set during similar Russian-Chechnyan conflicts 150 years ago. The more things change....
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. One day, on patrol along a mountain road, they're ambushed by the locals, and 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, scored by clear rivers.
Abdoul-Mourat hopes to arrange a prisoner swap 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 initially made worse by their forced cohabitation. Shackled together by the ankles, their inherent differences are magnified and exacerbated. Sacha is contemptuous of the green Vania, resentful that he failed to fight adequately during the ambush. He teases him with explanations of why he himself will emerge unscathed while Vania is sure to be killed or castrated. Sacha comes off like a tough, nasty son of a bitch.
Still, he exudes positive life force; he is a much more outgoing, 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."
There are further complications, and it should give nothing away to say that 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.
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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 apparently knew right away that the camera would love her face: She may well have more close-ups than anyone else in the movie. In a totally natural, unforced way, seemingly without trying, she makes Dina the character we most care about.
Prisoner of the Mountains.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov. With Oleg Menshikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr., Jemal Sikharulidze, Susanna Mekhralieva, Alexei Jharkov and Valentina Fedotova. Rated R.