Prisoner of the Mountains
(Кавказский пленник)

Prisoner of the Mountains (Кавказский пленник)
Made in: Russia, Kazakhstan
Language: Russian, Chechen, Georgian
Director: Sergei Bodrov Sr.
Starring: Sergei Bodrov Jr., Oleg Menshikov, Jemal Sikharulidze, Susanna Mekhraliyeva, Aleksandr Bureyev, Valentina Fedotova
Year: 1996

Synopsis: During the first Russian-Chechen war, a naïve army private named Ivan (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) and his cynical sergeant, Sasha (Oleg Menshikov) are making their way through the mountains in an armored personnel carrier.

The APC is ambushed by a group of well-armed villagers, and Ivan (aka Vanya) and Sasha are captured after the skirmish. Leading the ambush is Abdul-Murat (Jemal Sikharulidze), a grizzled old man.

The two soldiers are taken back to Abdul's small village, where they are chained together and locked in a stable (complete with a mellow donkey). Over the course of the war, Abdul's son had been taken prisoner by the Russians. And using Vanya and Sasha as leverage, wants to trade the soldiers in exchange for his son's release.

The other men in Abdul's village don't like this idea, and pressure him to kill their hostages instead. They give Abdul a strict ultimatum before they decide to take matters into their own hands.

As days go by, Sasha and Vanya start developing a rapport with their captors. And Vanya even starts to befriend Dina (Susanna Mekhraliyeva), Abdul's stoic but compassionate teenage daughter.

As Sasha works on a daring escape plan, Vanya's mother travels to the region in hopes of convincing the local Russian military commander to negotiate with the Chechen villagers. But after Sasha and Vanya become separated, the true personalities of all the major characters emerge as the situation reaches its tragic climax.

The Good: Subtle and bearing a documentary-like style, Prisoner of the Mountains takes a very interesting approach to the well-known "war is hell" genre. Director Sergei Bodrov concentrates on the human element, choosing to focus on just a few characters.

In doing so, we are still able to grasp the complexity and tragedy of the war. With barely any direct exposition, the story is effectively told through subtle action, pithy dialogue, and visuals that more often suggest rather than explicitly show major plot turns.

Oleg Menshikov and Sergei Bodrov Jr, both accomplished Russian actors, have excellent onscreen chemistry and do a great job bringing a lot of humanity to the story.

The Bad: The film's low budget became apparent during some of the action sequences, and hampered the drama somewhat.

Who would like this film: Loosely based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, Prisoner of the Mountains isn't a film for everyone. I'd recommend this to you only if you're a seasoned viewer of foreign films and have experience with indie/art-house cinema.

The film isn't outwardly ideological, and paints a balanced picture of the Russian-Chechen conflict. It's pretty depressing, and my first reaction upon finishing it was, "I'm sure glad that movie is over. Now I want to crawl into bed and die."

But the more I think about it, the more I like this film (and I don't feel like dying anymore). It's genuinely emotional and superbly acted. Prisoner of the Mountains is an authentic film full of universal themes about the best and worst of humanity, without any trace of pretentiousness that befalls other movies of the same genre.

(3 out of 4 stars)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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