Here is a film that gives us every reason to
watch a film with subtitles. When would most of us have a chance to walk through the
narrow winding streets of a remote village in the Caucasus Mountains, or to look over the
fruit peddler's stand from within the ancient walls of a Kazakstan city? Based on a
short story by Leo Tolstoy and filmed within 20 miles of the actual fighting, this tale
about two Russian prisoners of war could have been set in Tolstoy's day (150 years ago),
but had no problem conforming to the contemporary setting, proving that nothing has really
The Russian soldiers are young Vanya, (Sergei Bordov Jr.), the innocent, untried soldier,
and Sasha (Oleg Menshikov), the wiser, more worldly sergeant. Their tank patrol is
ambushed by Moslem guerillas and the two soldiers are left for dead by the Russians.
The imposing patriarch, Abdul-Murat (Dzhemal Sikharulidze) decides to try to keep
them alive and offer them in exchange for his son, now being held prisoner by the
Russians. He brings them to his home and shackles them together. His
young daughter, Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva) brings them food and water. Sasha
initially appears to have nearly as much contempt for Vanya as he does for his captors.
Vanya is terrified and turns to Sasha for support, who reluctantly takes him under
The first prisoner exchange attempt is foiled by the Russians, who, not believing the
sincerity of the plan, disguised a Russian soldier to pose as Abdul's son. The other
villagers want Abdul to kill the prisoners. One night, a guerilla group arrives and
insists on using the two to clear a road that has been mined by the Russians. After
successfully removing the mines, Sasha and Vanya are invited to party with the guerillas.
It is a rare glimpse into the lives of these hearty, passionate people, as we watch
them dance and compete in contests of strength. When Vanya is offered as a challenge
to the champion fighter, the champion laughs at his obvious weakness and declines to
employ his unfair advantage.
Abdul is under increasing pressure from his fellow villagers to kill the prisoners but
doesn't want to give up on the exchange plan. He forces both Vanya and Sasha to
write to their mothers and ask them to demand the cooperation of the Russian commander.
Sasha was raised in an orphanage, so had no mother to write to. Vanya's
mother (Valentina Fedotova) is a school teacher and is devoted to her son. She makes
the trip to Kazakstan and personally meets with the commander(Aleksei Zharkov). He
tells her, "You cannot trust them!". A most memorable scene is created
when the mother beats the commander about the head with her handbag, her rage and
frustration totally vented on him.
Vanya's mother arranges a meeting with Abdul. They sit across a table in a teahouse.
The measure of parental love is matched one for the other. "I am a
teacher, just like your son.", she says. "We are enemies", is Abdul's
The prisoners botch an escape attempt and are recaptured. Sasha is executed for
killing a shepherd but Vanya is retained for the anticipated exchange. Sasha's ghost
appears to Vanya and lets him know that "I'm dead, and I think I like it."
Abdul's son is killed in a crossfire that ensues when a Moslem elder arrives just as he is
to be offered in the exchange, and kills his own son, who was working as a policeman for
It now seems certain that Vanya will be executed. Dina has offered him comfort by
telling him that she will see to his proper burial, something that gives Vanya little
comfort. He pleads with her to unlock his shackles and she finally relents.
But, when he is set free, he announces that he will not leave and let her face the
consequences of disobeying her father alone. When Abdul arrives and marches Vanya
off into the mountains, we are sure that he will be killed. In one final triumphant
moment, Abdul shows the true depths of his soul and allows Vanya his freedom.
The location footage and intimate cinematography of the local people made this film
extraordinary. There is an underlayment of ethnic music that weaves throughout the
film, giving reference to a culture that is little known by Americans.
Prisoners of the Mountains was nominated for an Oscar and for a Golden Globe for Best
Foreign Film(1997). The film won a European Film Award for Outstanding Single
Achievement(1996) and Nika Awards for Best Film, Best Writer, Best Director, with Sergei
Bordov Jr. and Oleg Menshikov sharing the award for Best Actor (1996). It also won
the San Diego International Film Festival Award for Best Film (1997).
"WOW!!! We can't wait to see it again - on video! Poetic, touching, vibrant."
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