For sheer escapism, it is hard to beat Hollywood movies. They take us to places that simply do not exist—worlds where the daily tedium is interrupted by alien invasion, a dinosaur rampage or a scenic drive up an erupting volcano. But for North Americans saturated with their own culture and its cataclysmic fantasies, foreign films afford a different kind of escape—into the emotional reality that lies beyond the headlines of what is neatly labelled “world” news.
Kolya and Prisoner of the Mountains, two new films from the frontiers of the former Soviet empire, are both about innocents trapped by Russian occupation. Kolya is set in Prague on the eve of the 1989 Velvet Revolution; Prisoner of the Mountains takeg place in a remote village of the Russian Caucasus inhabited by Chechen rebels. But they both transcend the simple politics of oppression. They are intimate dramas with unassuming heroes who are absurdly stranded behind the lines— tainted by a national identity they never asked for. And they are personal films in more ways than one. Coincidentally, both are father-son efforts—Kolya’s star is the director’s father, and Prisoners star is the director’s son.
Kolya, which recently won the Golden Globe for best foreign film, was created by Czech director Jan Sverak and his father, veteran screenwriter Zdenek Sverak, the team behind the Oscar-nominated documentary Elementary School (1991). Zdenek plays Frantisek, a middle-aged cellist who is stuck playing funerals at the city crematorium after losing his job with the august Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. As well as serenading the dead, Frantisek moonlights in the cemetery, repainting names on tombstones. Resigned to his fate, and to his bachelor status, he amuses himself by seducing younger women.
But he is strapped for cash. And against his better judgment, Frantisek agrees to wed a Russian woman who needs Czech papers, marrying her in exchange for enough money to buy a car and pay the rent. The arrangement is supposed to carry no obligations. Frantisek’s bride, however, soon emigrates to Germany, leaving him to care for her six-year-old son, Kolya (Andrej Chalimon), who speaks only Russian.
It is a wryly understated narrative that blossoms into a tender tale of emerging fatherhood. Suddenly finding himself a single parent, Frantisek has to curb his cavalier lifestyle. He takes Kolya to work with him, and at the crematorium the boy develops a curious obsession with drawing coffins. Frantisek, meanwhile, has to shelter his
young charge from the prejudice and scorn of anti-Soviet Czechs who reject the boy simply because he is Russian. The irony is heartbreaking—an innocent child being persecuted for an imperialist birthright that led his own mother to abandon him.
But Sverak keeps the tone light. He directs with a lyrical eye, pacing his story with luminous close-ups—a wooden top turning on a lathe, bubbles rising in a pint of beer, a shaft of sunlight catching a brushstroke of gilt paint being applied to a tombstone. In the tradition of Czech cinema, there is a deadpan sensuality to the images, which are often ripe with symbolism. In one scene, as Russian army trucks routinely rumble up and down outside, the camera dwells on the idle beauty of their headlight beams splaying across the ceiling.
Kolya is an arresting portrait of the artist
as an aging musician, a man who is forced to rethink his relationship to the world after his life is invaded. Along the way, the film softly explores issues of artistic, sexual and political freedom, but like the Russian trucks outside the window, they remain at a distance, never breaking the film’s introspective spell.
Prisoner of the Mountains offers a ruder, but no less compelling, vision of life under Russian rule. Inspired by Prisoner of the Caucasus, a 150-year-old story by Leo Tolstoy, it is about two Russian soldiers held captive in a Muslim village after being caught in an ambush by Chechen guerrillas. Russian director Sergei Bodrov, who is now based in Los Angeles, shot the film on location in a remote mountain village in Dagestan, about 300 km from Chechnya, where the war was still raging at the time.
Swaggering between comic whimsy and blunt tragedy, Prisoner of the Mountains amounts to a passionate antiwar statement. And Bodrov claims that the movie, which was popular in Russia, may have changed the course of history. Last May, Russian President Boris Yeltsin requested a private screening of it at his dacha. A few days later, says Bodrov, Yeltsin softened his line on Chechnya, and an agreement ending the 18-month war was signed on May 27.
Regardless of whether the movie did influence the peace process, it is a significant film in its own right. The story revolves around the abrasive relationship between the two imprisoned Russian soldiers—the flamboyant Sacha (Oleg Menshikov), a hardened combat veteran, and the nervous Vania (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), a young recruit. Shackled together by chains, they form an odd couple, but a friendship grows out of the bickering, and they also show a fondness for their captors. Vania develops a shy crush on a young girl (Susanna Meldiralieva) whose father, the town patriarch, holds the prisoners’ lives in his hands—they will die unless he can get the Russians to swap them for his jailed son.
Despite some clumsy splashes of magic realism, Prisoner of the Mountains unfolds with the eye-opening veracity of a documentary. Filmed against an exotic landscape, the story digresses for vivid interludes of folk-dancing and kick-boxing. Shooting in an isolated town without running water or sewers, Bodrov recruited much of his cast from locals with no acting experience. At one point, in a bizarre example of life imitating art, the security guards took the film crew hostage after discovering they were being paid less than one of the stars—the 12-year-old Mekhralieva.
Marvelling at the magic of the cinema, Tolstoy once said he would like to write a screenplay. How surprised he would be to learn that, 87 years after his death, his fiction has spawned a movie about war and peace with a relevance that echoes, like fresh gunfire, through those same Caucasus mountains. □
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