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In the late ’50s, the U.S.S.R. began producing simple, relatively undogmatic movies, more for export than domestic consumption, to counterbalance its image as an evil empire bent on global domination. The most celebrated of these, Grigori Chukhrai’s 1959 Ballad of a Soldier, was warmly embraced in the West, receiving awards at the Cannes and San Francisco film festivals. Sentimental and pacifistic, these productions weren’t particularly memorable but held out the promise that deep-rooted conflicts could be resolved without destroying the planet. American art-theater audiences dutifully flocked to them as an act of enlightened passive defiance against our government’s demonization of the Russian people.

Four decades later, the U.S.S.R. no longer exists, but Sergei Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains develops a similar humanistic theme in a more sophisticated and artful manner. Bodrov and his co-screenwriters Arif Aliev and Boris Giller loosely base their film on a 150-year-old Tolstoy children’s story, “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” a tale of a Russian soldier captured in Chechnya. Although Bodrov is obviously aware of the contemporary resonance of his subject, he, unlike the pro-Russian Tolstoy, evenhandedly presents both cultures, balancing primitive and modern perspectives and priorities.

Shot in the Muslim village of Rechi in the Russian republic of Dagestan, Prisoner of the Mountains begins with local rebels ambushing a troop of Russian soldiers on a narrow mountain pass. Only two soldiers survive: Sacha (Oleg Menshikov), a hot-blooded, rakish officer, and Vania (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), a naive young recruit. The village patriarch, Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze), holds them for ransom, hoping to trade them for his son, who has been captured by the Russian army. If the exchange fails, Sacha and Vania are to be executed.

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Shackled and chained together in a barn, the prisoners are hardly the happiest of companions. The cynical, experienced Sacha patronizes Vania, a green, untested foot soldier. But confined in such proximity, they gradually begin to bond. Sacha drops his mask of braggadocio to expose veiled tenderness and vulnerability, and Vania displays sensitivity and courage beyond his callow years. Both grow closer to their captors—a mute, castrated guard, and Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva), Abdoul’s young daughter.

After an initial prisoner exchange fails, Abdoul, under pressure from his peers to exterminate the captives, commands Sacha and Vania to write to their mothers requesting help in expediting the hostage swap. An abortive escape attempt and four killings ensue before the film ends on a note of rueful optimism.

Although Prisoner of the Mountains is set in a landscape unchanged for centuries—the remote mountain village has no electricity, sewage system, or running water—Bodrov’s narrative is informed by a distinctly modern sensibility. Formally, his film is strikingly stylized (cinematographer Pavel Lebeshev emphasizes blues and browns to capture rugged, otherworldly vistas) and elliptically edited to keep the pace taut. His tone is similarly contemporary. Passages of unexpected humor—dark jokes about sex and death—punctuate the tension of the protagonists’ captivity, and touches of magical realism (a character makes two wry posthumous appearances) burst the conventions of naturalistic storytelling. In a surprising, affecting sequence, the closest the film comes to a love scene, the chained prisoners dance to a radio broadcast of Louis Armstrong’s “Go Down Moses.” It comes as no surprise to learn, in the movie’s press material, that Bodrov divides his time between residences in the U.S. and Russia.

Much of the film’s strength is derived from Bodrov’s cast, a blend of professional and novice actors. Menshikov, best known in this country for his appearance in Burnt by the Sun, has a matinee idol’s dashing good looks—the mustachioed handsomeness of a young Errol Flynn or Raul Julia—and the expressive skill to suggest the insecurity underlying Sacha’s bravado. Bodrov Jr., the filmmaker’s son, had to overcome his father’s determination to cast a professional actor as Vania before winning the role. His sweet, unaffected performance has since snowballed into a part in a BBC miniseries and another movie assignment. 12-year-old Mekhralieva was Bodrov’s biggest risk. He found her in a Rechi schoolroom and, after one look into her dark eyes, chose her to play Dina. The assurance of her performance—she’s reminiscent of the young Winona Ryder—testifies to the soundness of the director’s instincts.

Unlike the high-minded, humanist U.S.S.R. movies of the Cold War era, enjoying Prisoner of the Mountains does not require the justification of a topical political or historical context, despite its unavoidable connection to the ongoing Chechen conflict. Bodrov shares with Jean Renoir a mature vision that allows him to view all his characters with empathy, recognizing that each is driven by defensible reasons shaped by cultural traditions and personal beliefs. Although his film ends with a confirmation of faith in human decency, he does not suggest that such compassion is likely to become a local, let alone universal, standard of behavior. Long-standing animosities are momentarily transcended, yet minutes later the sky darkens with aircraft announcing a continuation of hostilities. One very small step for humanity, perhaps, but an expression of hope that more will be taken.CP