Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Film Review #166: Prisoner of the Mountains
1997/DVD 2003
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Sergei Bodrov, Jr., Oleg Menshikov, Jemal Sikharalidze, Valentina Fedotova, Aleksandr Bureyev

From the photos snapped in his off-the-set moments, Sergei Bodrov, Jr. could cut a striking and magnetic figure. When, just two days into shooting a new film in the Caucasus Mountains in 2002, the 30-year-old actor-director and several of his production crew died in an avalanche, The New York Times said Russia had lost her “hottest young movie star.” You can find him cast in the 1997 gangster hit Brat (released here on DVD last year as Brother) and the Oscar-nominated East-West (2000) – as well as in a handful of his father’s nearly 30 films – for example, both The Quickie (2001) and Bear’s Kiss (2002) are available here.

Then there’s Prisoner of the Mountains, the 1997 anti-war film that won his father honors at Cannes, both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best foreign language film, and a huge Russian following in the midst of the 1994-96 chapter of that country’s protracted, unpopular and bloody war with Chechnya. Here, the dashing younger Bodrov began his film career as Vanya, a soft-eyed, easily embarrassed new recruit injured his first day in the field and taken hostage along with his more jaded sergeant, the sarcastic, mustachioed Sacha (Oleg Menshikov).

After ordering up “one Russian alive” from the Chechen guerillas, village elder Abdul Murat (Jemal Sikharalidze) steps calmly from behind a roadside explosion’s clearing smoke and takes both men – a spare “in case the first one croaks” – intending to exchange them for his own son, who sits in the next valley in a foul, make-shift Russian prison. A widower, Abdul Murat has lost two sons to the invaders. A third son works for the Russians now as a police officer. So Abdul Murat has only the imprisoned son, a teacher, and a not-quite-yet-marriageable daughter, Dina (Susanna Mekhraliyeva, a Muslim school-girl from the village where the film was shot).

Bodrov Sr. and his Muslim co-writer Arif Aliev adapted their script from Leo Tolstoy’s novella, Prisoner of the Caucasus, written during Russia’s 30-year war of subjugation with Chechnya in the 19th century, when Tolstoy, then a military officer supporting that war, was not exactly in touch with the natural dignity of the Chechen people. Tolstoy’s take on Chechen-Russian relations was still required reading in Soviet schools in the years Bodrov Sr. grew up, so that audience would immediately recognize this widely-known story – filmed about 20 miles from the actual fighting that Bodrov’s updated screen version depicts.

Bodrov begins Prisoner of the Mountains with Vanya’s army physical. After a doctor mostly occupied with eating lunch absent-mindedly completes Vanya’s eye exam, this diffident, naked boy joins the line of other new recruits padding barefooted down a cavernous hallway. Slender and soft-looking, these young men – as startled as birds flying up from a hedge – cover themselves identically with clasped hands, intently looking elsewhere, when a nurse suddenly strides past them, her sturdy heels echoing loudly. With exactly such tender attention to detail might these young men’s mothers imagine them slipping toward destruction.

Vanya’s mother figures importantly in the story. Improvising when the Russian commander turns down his offer, Abdul Murat orders Vanya and Sacha to write letters asking their mothers to plead for them. Vanya expects his mother, a single school-teacher living far to the north, will show up – he tells a childhood story suggesting it’s likely – and so she does. And in her brief meeting with Abdul Murat, we see enemies inch back from the ledge, however imperfectly – just as their children will do – and that earns Vanya, at the cost of enormous grief, his life.

Chechnya’s independence struggle remains a fertile subject for Russian filmmakers. Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra opened here in March, following an elderly Russian visiting her soldier grandson at the Chechen front. Oscar-nominated this year, Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 adapted Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men to dramatize a young Chechen on trial for murdering his Russian step-father.

Also Oscar-nominated this year – the first entry from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan – Sergei Bodrov’s new film Mongol has just opened locally at Manlius Art Cinema. Already a seasoned and extremely proficient, technically confident filmmaker – across the board Prisoner of the Mountains is well written, acted, directed, shot and edited – Bodrov has spent increasing time in the West, particularly in the US, since 1993. Closer to John Adams than your standard exotic battle epic, Mongol is the first of three films about the 12th-century’s Genghis Khan suggests we have a lot to learn. Bodrov’s a welcome discovery.

This review appeared in the 7/3/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy” a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.