Alexandra: Sokurov’s Tale of Chechnya, Seen by Older Woman

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere, Competition)–Alexander Sokurov”s Alexandra is a conceptually fascinating piece that explores the moral consequences of the Russian military entanglement in Chechnya, viewed through the peculiar experiences of an older woman.

The directors cinema has the unique capacity to make you enthralled. His movies are founded on dizzying and vertiginous uses of how to move the camera and play with color and light. Sokurov also frequently imposes on his actors stylized, distanced performance methods that give rise to dark and furious ruminations of fathers and sons or frightening creations of historical conjecture, like Hitler.

In casting legendary Russian opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya in the magisterial title part, Sokurov works in a more immediate and direct emotional register. She makes an indomitable physical presence marked by her thick midsection, wide shoulders and a lined, vibrant face suggesting a full, hard and weary life. Tough, fearless, she walks into a room and takes over. Her brusque manner has streaks of flamboyant humor, such as the moment after her long train ride and she stands imperiously and expresses indignation at the possibility of dirtying her dress being lifted off the iron rail car.

Her character is a difficult and tenacious woman whose grandson, Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), is a military officer stationed in a remote Russian army camp in the desert landscape of war disrupted Chechnya. Sokurov quietly unfurls character and emotional detail. The meeting marks their first encounter in seven years. He is a skilled and decorated soldier who admits with some trepidation his participation in the Chechen campaign and expresses regret at the number of soldiers he has shot, wounded or killed.

Rather than rapture at their reunion, the meeting is obviously the cause of considerable strain on her grandson, not the least of which is the imposition on his life (his commanding officer tells the grandmother typically only available young women have been known to visit him in the past). She wonders aloud why he is not married and what he intends to do once his obligation to the military have been satisfied. In the sequence that announces this is no meek grandmother, she takes hold of a Kalashnikov rifle and promptly demands her grandson lock and load the weapon. She clearly gets off on the symbolic power the weapon affords.

One of the directors great strengths is his refusal to play to typical cultural presuppositions. His films all depend on knowledge of German or Dutch painters in his visual design or Russian cultural, historical and political history. He projects the viewer into the frame, whether they are ready or not, and demands that they disentangle the political or cultural context.

Alexandra becomes the direct means to consider the damages and irrationality of the Chechnya campaign, a war paralleling the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan (or the present American situation in Iraq), that here is stripped of the political or historical root causes and turns into an unvarnished portrait of madness and despair in which the vast majority of the soldiers are young, callow and hopelessly inexperienced. Her facial contortions and absurdist reactions illustrate the surreal conditions of the unofficial war

Deniss military obligations force him to leave his grandmother by herself. Assigned a young private, she quickly dispenses with him and wanders around the base, providing a withering personal and moral assessment about the Russian military action in Chechnya. Shot by the great Alexander Burov (Mother and Son), the movie unfolds in a charged twilight of muted brown earth tones that casts an almost hallucinatory hold over the material. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the movies strange, harsh rhythms take shape.

Shes not just the movies moral center. The movie takes on an existential consideration. My body is old, but my soul has the possibility to live for years, she says. The recent widow of a Russian military man, she disdains hierarchy or any manner of authority. She flatly tells Deniss commander that rather than destroying it ought to learn how to build and create. In the movies extraordinary middle section, she travels to a local market outside the command base and quickly makes contact with a retired school teacher Malika (Raisa Gichaeva) who works a kiosk selling cigarettes. They repair to the local womans house, and their exchanges over a cup of tea tellingly contrast the harsh political, cultural and religious differences resulting in the military strife.

After the somewhat rough, difficult start, the movie gains traction and turns into an eerie, personal and quite devastating in its larger implications, a considered and subtle exploration of the nature of good and evil. The former soloist of the Bolshoi Theater, Vishnevskaya was married to the great composer Mstislav Ostropovich. In her own remarkable life, she ran and out of favor with Soviet bureaucrats. Her background as a dissident artist makes her uniquely qualified.

Alexandra is not major-level Sokurov, such as his astonishing Mother and Son or Russian Ark, but it is a nagging work open to all forms of discussion related to form and content. What is the Fatherland Alexandra demands to know at one point. This movie offers compelling evidence that the answer is not an easy one.