PRINT March 2008


Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra

ALEXANDER SOKUROV’S single-take Russian Ark (2002) ends when the seemingly exhausted camera comes to rest on a slate-gray waterscape, one of the director’s many apparitional images of the lost Russian soul. In his latest work, Alexandra, Sokurov again broods on his nation’s anguished being, but with a new simplicity and directness. Like the babushka after whom the film is named, Alexandra is purposeful and forthright, occasionally prone to obviousness in its striving for clarity. Suppressed are the sfumato effects, the murmuring obscurity, the trancelike attenuations and abeyances of time, the anamorphic distortion, and the spectral experiments with barely-there imagery and chimerical sound that have defined Sokurov’s cinema. Nevertheless, like many of his films, Alexandra is a requiem—for a traduced culture, for a country unable to withdraw from a barbaric regional conflict, for an iconic actress nearing the end of her days, and for her recently dead husband—its modesty only seeming.

A heavy old woman who has not seen her grandson in seven years travels by troop train to visit his army base in Chechnya. The film’s first reel plays like a comedy of contention, the irritable granny veering between imperious plaint (“Don’t push me!” “Don’t pull my legs!” “Don’t shout!” she snaps at the helpful soldiers hoisting her into and out of compartments) and maternal solicitude (“Don’t look so downcast,” she counsels one gloomy conscript. “Cheer up, soldier”). Alexandra’s first comment to her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) after long absence is less tender than chiding: “You’ll drop me.” It quickly becomes apparent that this querulous woman, whose clothing and manner recall earlier times, embodies nothing less than Mother Russia. (Alexandra is, after all, played by national cultural treasure Galina Vishnevskaya. A celebrated actress and opera star, and the widow of Mstislav Rostropovich, she’s about as grande dame as a babushka gets.) As she pads about the base—finding or losing one’s way is a central trope in the film—inspecting a tank and uneasily wielding a Kalashnikov, being interrogated by suspicious sentries, quizzing officers and privates about the war, Alexandra incarnates a mater dolorosa amid men and their killing machines (the shorn soldiers look like a junior platoon of Tarkovskian Stalkers). “I’m sick of this military pride,” she tells Denis’s commander. “You can destroy. When will you learn to rebuild?”

The latter half of the film, in which Alexandra befriends Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), an aged Chechen vendor in a nearby village—“Men can be enemies, but we’re like sisters straightaway,” she says—threatens to succumb to sententiousness. Malika has lost three siblings, presumably to the war, and, in both her previous profession as teacher and the books stacked in her cramped apartment, she represents the learning and humanism that have been sacrificed to that conflict. Alexandra’s instant bond with her, born out of a mutual understanding of loss, revives the banal idea that during war, friendship between people from opposing sides can ameliorate the destruction waged in their names. Sokurov allegorically balances characters—pairing, for instance, a young Chechen, his eyes glinting with hostility when he hears Alexandra speak Russian, with Ilyas, Malika’s angelic teenage neighbor, who guides Alexandra back to camp (“Some shortcut!” the ever-peevish diva huffs) and tells her the two places he dreams of visiting are Saint Petersburg and Mecca. To Ilyas’s sudden demand, “Give us our freedom,” Alexandra replies, “If only it were so simple,” before imparting the counsel that one should always ask first for intelligence, not weapons. Her bromide is meant as a simple, humanist riposte to blood-soaked politics, but it only replicates the colonial condescension of the occupying forces.

If Alexandra is ultimately too generalized and anodyne—though shot in Grozny, its setting remains unnamed, bloodshed resolutely kept offscreen—Sokurov remains a master of landscape and atmosphere, of charged imagery and poetic effect. He reduces his palette to sepia or khaki monochrome (including Alexandra’s billowing tea-brown dress), etiolates exteriors with harsh sun, and employs the ocher, dust-loaded light like an unfurling scrim. In a film that emphasizes the act of looking—Alexandra repeatedly reproves soldiers for gawking at her—Sokurov gives us plenty to marvel at: a night sky riven by moonlight, seemingly shot day for night; profiles of Malika composed with the Flemish precision of a Frans Pourbus; a rhapsodic shot of Ilyas striding through fields on his way home; the oddly eroticized intimacy of Denis’s unplaiting of Alexandra’s hair, which recalls Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997); the final, ambiguous moment in which Alexandra, her head tamped into the lower right corner of the frame, heaves a sigh of either exhaustion or expiry.

Although at times Alexandra repudiates elements of Sokurov’s style—a montage of soldiers and guns, intercutting close-ups of boyish bodies and rifles lovingly dismantled and cleaned, surprisingly contravenes the languorous long takes and tortoise-paced pans, inherited from Tarkovsky, with which the director typically dilates time—the film otherwise serves as a Sokurov summa. Its landscape recalls the lunar setting of Days of the Eclipse (1988); the presence of Vishnevskaya makes the film a pendant to Sokurov’s last, Elegy of Life (2006); and, portmanteau style, Alexandra gathers various of Sokurov’s identifying genres: the family drama (Mother and Son and Father and Son [2003]); the films about men isolated in remote, desolate places (Spiritual Voices [1995], Confession [1998]); and the works centered on artists (Stone [1992], Hubert Robert [1996]), political conflict (his “men of power” trilogy), or death (The Second Circle [1990], Dolce [1999]). As diminutive as it seems in its Kammerspiel concentration, Alexandra emerges finally as capacious as its eponym.

Alexandra opens at Film Forum in New York on March 26.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.