Russian movies have a long and distinguished history, stretching back to the days of silent cinema. But since the fall of the Soviet Union and the restructuring of the state-run film industry, only a handful of Russian pictures have made their way to the United States and earned applause from American audiences.
A new picture called "Prisoner of the Mountains" wants to turn this situation around, and it just might succeed. It arrives with an impressive track record: showings at the Sundance and Toronto filmfests, and in the respected Director's Fortnight series at Cannes, where it won two prizes. Russia has also chosen the movie as its official contender in this year's Academy Award race for best foreign-language film.
Perhaps more important to moviegoers, one of its stars is Oleg Menshikov, whose successes include "Burnt by the Sun," an international hit and Oscar-winner in 1994.
And for traditionalists who look for time-tested names in the credits, the film is based on a story called "A Prisoner of the Caucasus" by no less a giant than Leo Tolstoy, who explores in this modest tale some of the themes he would later examine in his towering novel "War and Peace."
In the deliberately small-scaled stories he wrote during the first and last years of his career, Tolstoy wanted to teach basic moral lessons - about love, loyalty, generosity, faith, and other fundamental themes - through plots and characters so direct and simple that anyone in the world could relate to them. The film's adapters stay true to his sense of straightforward story-spinning and ethical concern. But they change the time and place of the tale to connect it with a matter of urgent importance in Russia's current political life: the war in Chechnya, seen here as a modern outgrowth of aggressive urges as old as human memory.
The heroes are Sacha, a veteran soldier who takes military matters in stride, and Vania, a new recruit with more energy than experience. Surprised by an armed skirmish, they're taken prisoner by a Chechen householder who stows them away on his farm, hoping to use them as hostages in a deal with Russian forces who have captured his son. Whiling away their days together, the soldiers develop an affectionate yet complicated bond with each other and - no less interestingly - with the old-fashioned rural Muslims who have taken control of their future.
As directed by Sergei Bodrov, parts of "Prisoner of the Mountains" resemble a TV travelogue on life in the Caucasus region, filling the screen with local color but giving little insight into what it would be like to spend a substantial amount of time there.
The movie is more effective when it delves into the personalities of its main characters, building them into fully rounded figures while avoiding many of the clichs that often intrude into stories like this. The householder's young daughter becomes close with the captives, for instance, but this subplot isn't allowed to slide into the sort of romantic entanglement that many Hollywood filmmakers might have found too tempting to resist.
In the end, "Prisoner of the Mountains" puts so much emphasis on human-interest details that it never builds as much suspense as Tolstoy's original story, which is still quite a page turner after nearly 150 years. The movie's concern with emotional and ethical issues is commendable, though, and it's refreshing to encounter a filmmaker who, as commentator A.N. Wilson once wrote about Tolstoy, is "never afraid of the obvious ... never worried by the fear of simplicity."
The picture may prove too single-mindedly earnest for mass-market success, but it will have served a worthy purpose if it reminds international audiences that Russian movies are still alive, well, and focused more on heartfelt issues than wide-screen spectacles.
* 'Prisoner of the Mountains' has an R rating. It contains several four-letter words in its English-language subtitles and has scenes of wartime violence.