Though he’s sure to deny it, “Alexandra” is Alexander Sokurov’s most directly political work for years. Featuring a performance of monumental depth by opera legend Galina Vishnevskaya, pic presents war for what it is: brutal, crushing, and ugly, and yet Sokurov doesn’t lens any battles. These wounds are deeper, coming from the endlessness of a war (Chechnya, but also anywhere) that bleaches the soul as surely as Sokurov’s striking trademark monochrome palette. Less accessible to general auds than “The Sun,” pic deserves major accolades from fests as well as discerning arthouses.
“Alexandra” inhabits a world of specificity and universality. The setting is Chechnya, and Alexandra’s questioning of “what is the Fatherland?” is an undeniable critique of that particular conflict, sure to make Vladimir Putin mighty uncomfortable. But Sokurov uses this one seemingly endless conflict to reflect upon the totality of the war experience, not in some superficial and sentimental way but by revealing the loss of basic humanity.
Elderly, no-nonsense Alexandra Nikolaevna (Vishnevskaya) arrives at her grandson’s army base after a long journey. She hasn’t seen Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) in seven years; following the initial joy of meeting he takes her on a tour of the base, where she watches soldiers barely old enough to grow facial hair cleaning their guns. Later on Denis gives her a Kalashnikov to hold. “It’s so easy” she says, surprise and unease in her voice, after she pulls the trigger.
There are frequent comments on the stifling heat, and the smells the soldiers have gotten used to but which invade Alexandra’s nostrils anew in each barrack. Humanity wanders, confused, in the soldier’s camp just as Alexandra wanders. Glances, gazes, searching looks form a key element to the film, not just Alexandra’s visual examination of her surroundings (especially people) but the soldiers’ stares back at her, a civilian, a woman, a representative of the warmth of home life that’s taken on almost alien qualities from being so distant.
“You’ve been fighting for so long,” she tells Denis’ commander. “You know how to destroy, but do you know how to build?” Uninterested in rules, Alexandra walks from the base to the local market where she meets Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a former teacher around her own age now trying to scrape by with a cigarette stall. Seeing Alexandra’s exhaustion, she takes her to her apartment, in a barely habitable, shelled building, where they share a cup of tea and the kind of neighborly warmth denied their grandsons.
For Sokurov, there are no enemies, just artificially created distrust that’s seeped into the environment like mustard gas. Denis is delighted to see his grandmother, but as a soldier he’s been removed from the bonds of home. “When are you getting married?” she keeps asking, as all good grandmothers ask, but he’s barely able to sustain a personal conversation let alone a relationship outside the military. Denis knows how to shoot, she says to the commander, but when he’s discharged (an uncertain future conditional tense to be sure), what else will he be capable of achieving?
On paper it might be easy to imagine Alexandra as some wishy-washy, simplistic character: not at all. She’s formidably solid, weakened physically by age but very much the kind of Russian woman burnished by WWII — unsentimental and fearless. Vishnevskaya captures all this, and much more. A life of struggle and dignity emanates from every pore. Sure, she’s Mother Russia, but she’s every mother viewing the wasted lives of young men and wondering why. Hers is no operatic performance, a la Maria Callas: this is the soul of Eleonora Duse.
Shot in and around Grozny, with lenser Alexander Burov (d.p. on “Father and Son”), pic utilizes the war-torn atmosphere while giving it an almost studio-like intensity. No one understands the effectiveness of muted colors like Sokurov, and “Alexandra” is perhaps his most effective use to date. Fields are bleached in the sun and baked in a brutally harsh light; dusk takes on camouflage hues, while night is an unwelcoming darkness. By removing the rainbow, Sokurov reminds the viewer just how joyous color can be.
Andrei Sigle’s moving compositions recall the sweep of late 19th century Russian composers, and Sokurov expertly weaves in the music to heighten an honest emotional resonance. His penultimate film, “Elegy of Life,” profiled Vishnevskaya and husband Rostropovich, but no one could have guessed he’d find a way to use her magic in such a non-musical way.