For generations, the heftier works of Leo Tolstoy have challenged undergraduate lifting power and speed-reading skills as much as they have confounded the world's moviemakers. That dark tribute to nineteenth-century adultery, Anna Karenina, was filmed in America three times, beginning with Garbo in 1935 and ending with Jacqueline Bisset in 1985--each version noticeably longer and dimmer than its predecessor. Worthies who tackled the daunting behemoth War and Peace were even more soundly defeated. In 1956 King Vidor and six screenwriters pared their absurd Hollywood gloss on the Great Russian Novel down to a relatively tidy 208 minutes. Sergei Bondarchuk's "definitive"--which is to say, interminable--1968 adaptation, on the other hand, ran 373 minutes in the U.S. and close to nine hours in the full-length USSR release. Sitting through either one is like hauling coal in the Gulag for a couple of decades.
What a relief, then, that the estimable Russian director Sergei Bodrov has chosen Tolstoy's compact (and cinematically manageable) novella A Prisoner of the Caucasus as the inspiration for a beautiful and intelligent new anti-war film called Prisoner of the Mountains. Big Leo wrote the story more than 150 years ago, for children, but Bodrov has deftly transplanted it to the present day and refashioned it for adult audiences. Such is the capacity of real literature--and of a movie director who knows exactly what he's doing.
Tolstoy's prisoner(s) of yore are now a pair of contemporary Russian soldiers--one a wide-eyed green recruit called Vania, the other a hard-bitten veteran named Sacha--who've been shipped off to the horrors of war in Chechnya. The film never mentions that breakaway republic by name (why compromise universality?), but there's no mistaking the rugged geography or the postmodern cut of the soldiers' tank and their machine guns. In any event, when the Russian patrol is ambushed by local rebels, only Vania and Sacha survive, and they are promptly dragged off to an ancient Muslim village so picturesquely carved into a windy mountaintop that Allah himself might have willed it there--centuries ago.
A cynical old campaigner now fighting in his third war, Sacha (Burnt by the Sun's Oleg Menshikov) knows all about the legendary Chechen ferociousness and matter-of-factly tells his quaking fellow captive that they probably won't live through the night. Just then, in this boy's broad, open, unlined face--astonishingly, Vania is Sergei Bodrov Jr., son of the director--we see the folly of war, of young men marched off to slaughter in the name of "ideals" they cannot grasp and old hatreds they don't share.
Luckily, conflict itself provides a reprieve. The Russians' captor, a snowy village elder named Abdul (Jemal Sikharulidze), initially spares them--despite the protests of his embattled neighbors--because his son has been captured by the Russian army, and he hopes to work out a prisoner exchange. While Sacha snipes at young Vania, the two of them shackled together out in the barn, the irony of their situation is complicated by the presence of an old guard dressed in black, whose tongue has been cut out by their Russian brethren, and Abdul's big-eyed teenage daughter, Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva), who's not much younger than Vania.
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Using these timeless elements and the dawdling rhythms of life in a timeless village, director Bodrov (Freedom Is Paradise) does honor to Tolstoy and fashions a captivating tale about cruelty, humanity and the sheer oddity of war. Bodrov takes us into a graveyard whose crooked, blackened stones bespeak the ages, and he brings us to a rude table where the mother of a Russian son and the father of a Chechen boy warily circle each other in the interests of their respective firstborns.
Thanks to Bodrov and the great cinematographer Pavel Lebeshev, we can practically taste the warm Stolichnaya whenever a gloomy soldier uncorks the bottle in Prisoner of the Mountains, and when a peasant wedding winds through the streets of the town among donkeys and goats, we feel certain the ritual has taken just this form for a thousand years. There are occasional outbursts of joy, as when a bright burst of Louis Armstrong suddenly issues from a radio, and there's a lovely scene in which a villager brings to young Vania, an apprentice watchmaker without much time left now, his family's big clock, which has stopped.
Make what you will of Bodrov's unexpected little detour into South American-style "magical realism," and please take note that, in Tolstoy's time or our own, terror and mercy quite often walk the same path, fused by fate. Hardened by war but buoyed by good humor--Bodrov was a comedy writer in his early days as a journalist--his ageless story unfolds with the kind of bittersweet, veiled irony that artists in oppressed societies so often use to evade their blockheaded censors. The Wall may have crumbled and the "Evil Empire" may be in ruins, but old habits die hard. Just ask anyone who went on location with Prisoner of the Mountains. While filming in Dagestan, local security guards hired by the filmmakers to protect them against local bandits took the entire crew hostage. Perhaps it's the greatest irony that this extraordinary study of war and humankind ever got to the screen at all.
Prisoner of the Mountains.
Screenplay by Arif Aliev, Sergei Bodrov and Boris Giller, from Leo Tolstoy's A Prisoner of the Caucasus. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. With Oleg Menshikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr., Jemal Sikharulidze and Susanna Mekhralieva.