Sergei Bodrov has said that he wants his "Prisoner of the Mountains," which opens today at the Charles, to be a universal story, not a Chechen story. It is universal, too, except possibly in a way that Bodrov never realized: It's universal in its evocation of the power of the star to illuminate material to an extraordinary degree.
This is particularly interesting here because the star is pure: He's got his charisma, and that's it. No covers of Premiere, no Cowan & Rogers flacking for him, nobody flogging phoners with the taco-circuit dailies. No, it's just Oleg Menshikov, all by his lonesome.
Menshikov pumps "Prisoner of the Mountains" into the ozone. He's a graceful, powerful figure, who looks like Kevin Kline imitating Errol Flynn. In the process, Leo Tolstoy's wispy "Prisoner of the Caucasus" is transformed to full-blown story status and everybody is the richer for it.
Menshikov plays a salty Russian sergeant captured by Chechens, along with a hapless recruit (played by Sergei Bodrov Jr.). Initially dismissive of the earnest young man, he eventually comes to care for him and ultimately makes a grand sacrifice for him.
But the movie is about far more than these two. Its basic suggestion is the futility of war. It watches as the two Russians begin to view their captors as human beings, not demons; at the same time, the Chechens begin to see them not as oppressors but as pathetic, helpless men.
They are doomed by larger mechanical forces -- forces that can't be stopped. (It reminded me of the line in Amy Lowell's anti-war poem "Patterns": Christ, what are patterns for?) It's one of those cases where the little people are learning the right lessons from each other, but the men who move the pawns about don't have time to listen and set things in motion that can't be stopped.
For all its antic humor, "Prisoner of the Mountains" never gets far from the horror of modern war, and that horror remains its strongest message.
'Prisoner of the Mountains'
Starring Oleg Menshikov and Sergei Bodrov Jr.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov
Released by Orion Classics
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 2/21/97