Magazine article Russian Life

A Prisoner of the Caucasus

Magazine article Russian Life

A Prisoner of the Caucasus

Article excerpt

By the use of gaudy images of human tragedy amidst 'ravishing natural beauty' director Sergei Bodrov's new film A Prisoner of the Caucasus masterfully brings to life Tolstoy's classic short story of the same name.

Tolstoy's plot was based upon his experiences while serving with the Russian Army in the Caucasus, from 1851-54, as the Russian Crown fought to bring into the Empire a rebellious native force. Tolstoy's tales of military service were his first introduction to the patriotic Russian censor, which gravely disagreed with his ambivalent portrayal of Russia's military presence. Tolstoy raised the censor's ire with his radical representation of the Tartar and Muslim 'hordes,' suggesting that they were anything other than bloodthirsty and sub-human. Whereas many other Russian writers had fought bravely in those wars, turning their battle experiences into print useful for propaganda, Tolstoy's service caused him to thoroughly question the very nature of the war.

Bodrov seems to share Tolstoy's uncompromising artistic vision - his film does not avoid showing the bleak underbelly of life in an occupied country - and, possibly, Tolstoy would have appreciated Bodrov's sensitive adaptation. Bodrov has the courage of his moral convictions and he never hesitates to reiterate the anti-war message at the heart of his tale of courage, kindness and cowardice in time of war. At the center of this film, amid all the blood and suffering, lies the image of a winsome toy bird. The bird hangs dismally in a young girl's window, unable to escape on its wooden wings all the surrounding human loss. But the bird itself is an act of hope. And perhaps that, finally, is the gift Bodrov wants his audience to take away with them: a toy bird, unable to fly, but longing for freedom.

During a seemingly endless war in the Caucasus for domination over indigenous self-determination, two Russian soldiers on patrol are overpowered and taken prisoner. Oleg Menshikov, fresh from his success as the depraved NKVD officer in Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt By The Sun, gives a strong performance as the malicious and dissolute patrol commander Sasha. His Sasha is the morally weary heir of Russian literature's traditional anti-hero, spanning all the way back to Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin: Sasha lives carelessly, shielding himself from a coarse reality with drink and random violence. Cynical and arrogant, he takes out his frustration on his fellow-prisoner, Private Ivan Zhilin, but it is eventually he and not Ivan who breaks down in the face of their predicament.

Zhilin is an excellently rendered cross-section of contemporary Russia. A young, raw recruit, his mother's only son, his father gone or never there, Ivan represents Russian youth in the crossfire of an older generation's greedy desire to retain the stolen treasure of a mutilated empire. Compellingly acted by Sergei Bodrov, Jr., Ivan is a very likable figure to those he comes into contact with, whether writing letters home to his mother, or making toys in the hope of winning over his kidnapper's daughter, Dina (Susanna Mekhraliyeva). Dina, far older than her years, stands out as the voice of reason in a world of brute force. She is one of the few products of her environment who is able to see beyond the next killing to the end of humanity. As her brother sits in a Russian prison, and her father glumly savors his hatred, Dina recognizes a kinship with the prisoners and does what she can to soften their lot. …

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