Directed by Sergei Bodrov

Starring Sergei Bodrov Jr., Oleg Menshikov, Jemal Sikharulidze & Susanna Mekhralieva.

"Prisoner of the Mountains"

Opened: Friday, February 7, 1997 | Rated: R

Once in a while a movie is so perfectly timed that it makes one wonder if current events haven't been staged as a publicity stunt.

"Prisoner of the Mountains," the Russian contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is an exploration of the absurdities of war and the dilemmas and personal tragedies it creates.

Based on Leo Tolstoy's "Prisoner of the Caucasus" but set in present day, it tells of a gypsy village's imprisonment of a rookie Russian soldier and his commander (Sergei Bodrov Jr., the director's son, and Oleg Menshikov) during a regional conflict, and the ironic parallel to events in Chechnya is too much to be ignored.

Conceived long before the recent war by director Sergei Bodrov, "Prisoner" opens with a forgivably low budget battle scene (I've seen kids play war with more aplomb), an ambush by dilettante rebels that nets them two captives.

Held in a barn that can barely keep the livestock from wandering away, they are diligently watched by a villager whose tongue was cut out by Russian soldiers during an earlier conflict, while their envenomed captor (Jemal Sikharulidze) plots to trade them for his son, jailed nearby by the Russian Army.

While the arrogant commander and his naive charge butt heads early in their imprisonment, they soften into a friendship that soon spreads to their guard and the adolescent daughter of their captor.

The girl (Susanna Mekhralieva, an amazing child actress thoughtful beyond her years) is contemplative and full of philosophy, but she somehow maintains an alluring innocence that enchants the rookie soldier and they form a bond that is tested when the prisoner exchange goes horribly wrong.

Poignant without being heavy, "Prisoner of the Mountains" is insightful and even magical in spots, rather than grandiose as American war pictures (even one about POWs) tend to be.

It faces stiff competition for the Foreign Film Oscar, but the nomination will hopefully give this film deserved attention from American audiences.

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