Two soldiers held hostage during the war in Chechnya struggle for escape, and survival in the face of a bitter and dangerous captor.
A firm festival favourite, Sergei Bodrov's updating of the Tolstoy short story Caucasian Captive has the distinction of being the first film to be set against the backdrop of the war in Chechnya.
After their unit is ambushed in the Caucasus, a battle-hardened sergeant (Menshikov) and a rookie private (Bodrov Jr.), are taken hostage by a rebel chief (Sikharulidze) in reprisal for the capture of his son by the Russians. As their release becomes increasingly unlikely, the soldiers begin to look for ways of escape before their fate is decided for them by the intransigence of their commander.
This is a deceptively simple story that preaches its pacifist cause without undue fuss. Yet its measured approach enables Bodrov to pack a real punch in the final scenes, when the niceties of cross-cultural curiosity are abandoned and the necessities of war return with a vengeance. The innocent trooper, the cynical veteran and the dignified rebel are stereotypes, but under Bodrov's meticulous direction, they take on a humanity unusually allocated to characters in war films.
But the true star of this thoughtful, yet often amusing and moving drama, is the Chechen landscape, superbly photographed by Pavel Lebeshev in a style that recalls both Antonioni and such Fifth Generation Chinese directors as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. For all the laudable anti-war sentiments, the most abiding memory of this affecting film will be the shots of a ramshackle village buried away in the forbidding mountainside, that serve at once as a symbol of tradition, poverty and defiance.
Thoughtful, and at times amusing drama, heightened by some stunning cinematography.