Dir: Alexander Proshkin. Russia-France. 2000. 130 mins.

Prod co: NTV-Profit, Roissy Films, Production Le Pont, Canal Plus, Goskino, Globus Studios of Orenburg. Int'l sales: Roissy Films-Celluloid Dreams (33) 1 53 53 50 50. Exec Prod: Vialy Koshman. Prod: Igor Tolstunov, Mikhail Zilberman. Scr: Galina Arbuzova, Stanislav Govorukhin, Vladimir Zheleznikov, based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin. DoP: Sergei Yurizditsky. Prod des: Alexander Tolkachev, Vladimir Yermakov. Music: Vladimir Martynov. Ed: Tatyana Yegoricheve. Main cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Karolina Gruszka, Mateusz Damiecki, Vladimir Ilyn, Sergei Makovetsky.

Based on the Pushkin classic, this historic epic follows in the tradition of films such as War And Peace with its huge cast of characters and sweeping battle scenes. At $5m, it was the most expensive Russian film of last year and high production values - along with outstanding performances - should win the film international sales, especially for television, as well as festival appearances.

Director Alexandre Proshkin has stayed true to the source novel of young love set against the backdrop of the Pugachev rebellion in the time of Catherine the Great. But he also injects the story with a contemporary outlook that emphasises the pointlessness and brutality of war. Vladimir Mashkov breathes life into the character of Pugachev, a pretender to the throne who leads a peasant rebellion against the tsar and who is both brutal and noble. His opposite is Sergei Makovtsky's Shvabrin, a corrupt Russian officer ready to join any side to save his own skin. Caught up in these events are the young lovers Grinyov (16-year-old Polish actor Mateusz Damiecki) and Masha (fellow Pole Karolina Gruszka). Their youthful idealism lends a poignant touch to the film.

Above all, the film is a visual treat, with vast sweeps of the snow-covered Steppes and costumes and props inspired by museum pieces lending authenticity. A stand-out is the scene in which a group of fishermen cut holes in the ice and spear enormous sturgeon which they slit open to eat caviar by the handful directly from the still writhing fishes bellies. This is the real thing not provided by special effects or computer graphics and it makes for mesmerising viewing.