Prisoner Of The Mountains

on January 31, 1997 by Jon Matsumoto
   Feature films, documentaries and even TV news (unlike the print news media) have the powerful ability to capture events in faraway places with unforgettable clarity. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. With "Prisoner of the Mountains," filmmaker Sergei Bodrov has created a stirring drama that brings sharp human and physical dimensions to ethnic tensions that have long plagued Russia and its adjacent republics.
   The idea for this drama actually preceded Chechnya's current and sometimes bloody quest for independence from Russia; Sergei Bodrov's films is a contemporary version of Leo Tolstoy's "Prisoner of the Caucasus," written 150 years ago. Tolstoy's tale involves a young man captured by an enemy in an eternal war between Russia and its neighboring nations. "Prisoner of the Mountains" finds two Russian soldiers held captive by a Muslim patriarch in the Caucasus; local villagers urge Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze) to kill his prisoners. But he decides instead to try to trade the two for his own son, who has been interned by the Russians.
   "Prisoner of the Mountains" doesn't take sides. The source of this seemingly endless conflict seems less important to Bodrov than the fact that people have been dying tragically for years as a result of the mutual ill-will. Audiences might feel a natural tendency to pull for hostages Sacha (Oleg Menshikov) and Vania (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) because they will be killed unless a deal between Abdoul-Mourat and the Russians can be struck. At first, the two prisoners come across like a Russian version of the Odd Couple; Sacha is an officer with an outward toughness and biting sense of humor that belie a basically good heart and a sad past. Vania is a gentle recruit who seems better suited to writing poetry than shooting a rifle. Eventually, the two form a personal bond that is engaging and sometimes very moving, and even funny.
   The Muslims are also treated with humanity and dignity. The elderly Abdoul-Mourat is a proud but caring man who is now raising his young daughter Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva) by himself. Sikharulidze gives his character an emotionally searing presence, conveying stoic strength as well as the poignant sorrow of a man who has lost his wife and, possibly, his son.
   "Prisoner of the Mountains" does demonstrate that the Muslims lead very different lives from urban Russians. Abdoul-Mourat and his fellow mountain dwellers seem to be products of a very uncomplicated pre-industrial era. One is left with the feeling that the Muslims' distrust of the Russians in this day and age has as much to do with lifestyle differences as it does with ethnic or religious chasms. However, "Prisoner of the Mountains"--which received 1996's best screenwriting Felix award--is ultimately about the similarities and not the differences between such rivals. When Dina and Vania forge a touching friendship, Bodrov shows just how insane such century-old conflicts really are. Starring Oleg Menshikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr., Jemal Sikharulidze and Susanna Mekhralieva. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Written by Arif Aliev, Sergei Bodrov and Boris Giller. Produced by Boris Giller and Sergei Bodrov. An Orion Classics release. Drama. Rated R for some violence and language. Running time: 99 min
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