The Circle of Death

I tend to think of the War in Chechnya as Russia’s version of Vietnam, though I recognize the comparison lacks a certain amount of accuracy. The idea remains that Chechnya is a place where Russia does not belong.

Sergei Bodrov’s 1996 film “Prisoner of the Caucasus” – forgive me, but I refuse to call it “Prisoner of the Mountains” – certainly takes the perspective that the realms of Russia and Chechnya are incompatible and trapped in a cycle of conflict. Though the film was ostensibly based on a work by Tolstoy, I suspect the finished product has more to do with the film’s contemporary circumstances than with a work of literature written in the 1800s. The film’s source material does, however, serve as a stunning reminder that the conflict between the two people has lasted for generations.

The cinematography luxuriates in the landscape of Chechnya. This world of hills, herders, minarets, and towns nestled on rocky outcroppings is completely at odds with either the urban areas of Moscow and Petersburg or the lush fertile landscape that many Russian films seem determined to show. By reveling in the depiction of this dusty earth, the film implies that Russians do not belong in this space.

The idea that Russians should not interfere in Chechnya also arises in one of the songs repeated throughout the film. In the lyrics of what appears to be a Chechen folksong, the singer warns that strangers fear and have reason to fear this land. The Chechen people, however, belong to this place as surely as the Russians do not belong in it. The structures and even the gravestones appear as natural parts of the landscape, ancient and settled.

The film displays the Chechen people as individuals who live by rules that are very different than the rules by which Russians live. When the film shows the morning call to prayer, and the prayer rug, the images emphasize how foreign this culture is to Sasha and Zhilin. Though the clothing worn by the individuals does not have the flash and flair that earlier depictions of non-Russian cultures may have head, the vestments worn by Dina and the other women appear much different than the clothing worn by Russian women in the 1990s; Dina perpetually has a head covering, her long skirts often end in fringe and are richly colored.

The ending of the film implies potential for change does exist. Unlike Sasha, Zhilin attempts to understand the Chechen people on a human level. He had Dina have a good rapport, and he tells her a bit sadly, “I would marry you.” Their ability to interact alludes to the potential for mutual understanding between the groups. The bombing of the town precludes this potential happy ending.

This endless timeless cycle appears repeatedly through the film. The presence of broken clocks and Zhilin’s ability to fix those clocks implies that he may be able to jostle these two cultures out of their eternal cycle of violence. In the end though, Zhilin did not have time to fix the last clock, so the cycle of death remains in place.

The character of Sasha is brilliant in this film. In “Prisoner of the Caucasus”, Oleg Menshikov who also appears in “Burnt by the Sun” plays the role of Sasha Sly. Though it is easy to compare the character to Chapaev, I think Sasha is just as fascinating when not contrasted with his predecessors. Sasha is not the most brilliant man, and he knows it. When the audience first views Sasha, we are driven to hate him, this arrogant Rambo-like man who cannot even remember his fellow prisoner’s name. But as the film progresses, the viewer realizes that Sasha has a very particular sort of nobility about him; he will not ask to be saved; he should have been Hamlet; he would rather fight the nephew of his enemy than see Zhilin harmed; and in spite of his cruelties, he takes care of his son. The film attempts to prove that all people are multi-faceted. Sasha’s death is a tragedy, but so are the deaths of Abdul’s son and all of the Russians and Chechens on both sides of the conflict.

“Prisoner of the Caucasus” emphasizes the utter tragedy of a struggle that seems in danger of never ending.

*Edited to remove the assumption that everyone dies in the end.

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  1. Arlene’s avatar

    Not sure I would include Abdul or Dina in the last of those who die, but I would add Abdul’s son.


    1. Kristen Twardowski’s avatar

      Thanks for catching the mistake! In my head, the army bombed the village and everybody died at the end. I suppose I can’t actually make that assumption.