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'Prisoner' of War

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 7, 1997

"Prisoner of the Mountains," a beautiful Russian film set in a stark, mountainous region of the Caucasus where life has continued unchanged for centuries, links the destinies of two Russian soldiers and their Muslim captors. It isn’t specifically about the Chechnyan rebellion, but that conflict is clearly applicable, and the movie reaps humanistic bounties from the cynical soil of all wars.

On a mission in the Caucasus mountains’ region of Dagestan, Russian soldiers are ambushed by Muslim rebels. After the gun battle, two Russians are left wounded -- a cocky, devil-may-care sergeant called Sacha (Oleg Menshikov) and Vania (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), a sweet-natured recruit.

Captured and led to a hideaway camp, they’re held as hostages. Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze), an imposing leader, intends to exchange them for his son, who’s in a Russian jail. But an initial prisoner exchange is foiled by treachery on the Russian side. These soldiers’ lives, it seems, aren’t particularly valuable.

Ignoring the entreaties of his compatriots to kill the captives, Abdoul-Mourat orders Sacha and Vania to appeal to their mothers. Sacha’s letter gets no response, but Vania’s mother (Valentina Fedotova), a schoolteacher, attempts to save her son.

Sacha and Vania, bound to each other with leg shackles, become friends. They also become chummy with their silent sentry, whose tongue -- they find out -- was cut out by Russians.

Vania also strikes up a friendship with Dina (12-year-old Susanna Mekhralieva), Abdoul-Mourat’s young daughter, who feeds him and keeps him apprised of her father’s plans. With little hope of rescue or negotiation, death seems unavoidable. For the mountain rebels, passage into the afterlife is not nearly as alarming as it is for the Russians. The taking of lives is not a matter for too much agonizing.

Director Sergei Bodrov (father of the actor who plays Vania) lightens the impending doom with humanism, mythical elements and a little gallows humor. Sacha, who likes to scare his fellow prisoner, tells Vania that he’s probably going to be castrated. Has Vania slept with a woman? Sacha asks. Vania says he has.

"Don’t worry, then," says Sacha. "You’ve had your fun."

"Still," says the private, trying to put on a brave face, "it is too bad."

In "Prisoner of the Mountains," which Bodrov adapted from a Tolstoy short story with Arif Aliev and producer Boris Giller, such moments are rendered unforgettably amusing. Sacha and Vania are learning things about war -- and the people they’re fighting -- that transcend their quest for escape. The outcome of this movie isn’t exactly Hollywood material, but it stirs thoughts and feelings that outlast all too many American studio releases.

PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS (R) — Contains sexual language and isolated moments of violence. In Russian with subtitles.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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