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Locals Get A Second Chance To Take In A 'Prisoner'.

By Stacey Richter

ONE NICE THING about living in Tucson is that even though we don't get a lot of foreign films, they sometimes come around twice. If you missed Prisoner of the Mountains when it first opened in the spring, you have a second chance to see this Russian film, which was nominated for an Academy Award despite the fact that it is moving, thoughtful and completely unsentimental.

Based on a story by Tolstoy, Prisoner of the Mountains deals with sweeping themes of war, brotherhood and kinship by concentrating on the small-scale interactions between friends and enemies. Vania and Sacha, a pair of Russian soldiers, go to the Caucasus to fight the mountain people, whom they dismissively refer to as "non Russians." These indigenous people have lived in the mountains for generations and appear to be a sort of Eastern European version of the Amish. They live in a primitive village on a mountaintop without running water or gas-powered vehicles; the men wear black coats and hats that look sort of like Shriner hats. They're fierce soldiers though, and they capture the two Russian soldiers in an ambush, killing everyone else.

The mountain folk despise Russians, but as it turns out, the patriarch of the village wants to make a trade. His son has been captured by the Russians, and he wants to swap the two captives for him. This film does a great job portraying the Russian army as a boozy, inefficient bureaucracy that can barely keep track of itself. The Russian commander, out of either apathy or inefficiency, is totally unable to make the trade. "They never take prisoners," he says of the mountain people, and leaves it at that. The patriarch makes the soldiers write their mothers so that they can negotiate the trade. In Russia, apparently, mothers are more competent than army commanders.

While we're waiting for the letters from the Russian soldiers to reach their mothers (only Vania, the young and inexperienced soldier, happens to have one), everyone starts bonding madly; the captors bond with their prisoners, the prisoners fall in love with their keepers. At first Sacha, the older, seasoned Russian soldier, is cool to his young companion Vania, teasing that he's either going to die or have his balls cut off. But after being shackled together for a couple of weeks, the two are so close they're practically in love. Out on a mountain slope, hauling some stones for their captors, they stare into one another's eyes with sultry intensity. Their captors are equally enthralled with the two young men. Nothing much happens in their little town, apparently, and these guys provide some welcome cultural diversity. Vania, especially, charms the townspeople, fixing a watch for his captor Abdoul and making toys for his serious and lovely adolescent daughter.

But as the love-level rises, it becomes clear that something a little less friendly is going to happen. "Would you come back and kill them?" Sacha asks Vania, who admits that he wouldn't. "I would kill them," Sacha says. "After all, it's war."

This film takes its time developing both the relationships between the characters and the relationship between the people and the land. Shot after beautiful shot shows the villagers working in the fields, carrying grain and water, as the mountains change from blue to yellow to gray in the light. Tolstoy would have approved, as he would have also approved of the meandering route the story sometimes takes. There are scenes in Prisoner of the Mountains that don't necessarily further the plot or help us know how everything is going to turn out, but which nonetheless add depth and color to the whole. One scene has a soldier entering a store with nothing on the shelves but vodka. He asks for two bottles, then starts to walk away. When the shopkeeper asks for his money, he takes a pistol out of his pocket and gives it to him. It's a great scene that gives us an idea of how dissolute the military is, but it doesn't have much to do with the plot.

In this summer movie season, it's a relief to see a movie made up of quiet moments that describe the tensions and connections between people. Don't wait too long...this might be your last chance.

Prisoner of the Mountains is playing exclusively at The Loft cinema (795-7777).

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