A film about war without bullets, bombs, or bloodshed — it’s difficult even to be convinced of “the enemy,” although Alexandra was shot on location in Grozny in the midst of the real war between Russia and Chechnya. But this we know mostly from what we’ve heard, because in the barren dust and heat, we could be in Afghanistan or elsewhere, since precious little happens in terms of action or plot that would pin down a particular time and place. Yet what matters is exactly what we see, and how Alexander Sokurov lets us experience it.
Owing to the classical composition of the film in both image and sound, from its painterly frames to its measured rhythm and structure, it flows like a sonata: andante, andante con motto, and andante. The first movement, set to the pace of Alexandra Nikolaevna (Galina Vishnevskaya) and the stately stride of her elderly body as she arrives by armored train and tours and interrogates the military unit of her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), a highly respected captain, gives way to the second movement, her self-willed trek to the market in the nearby village where she mingles with the local Chechen inhabitants to get a taste of their life. The third movement returns her to the base with a more piercing round of the same questions for Denis about his well-being, his future, his place in the war, and the place of war in the world.
Alexandra is full of questions, and significantly, she insists that these questions are important to her. Quietly we come to realize that this is because all too few are being asked. Simple questions like “Where do you wash?” or “What do you read?” turn to more pressing queries such as how to load a gun and how to shoot. “Oh — it’s so easy?” Soon enough it’s “Have you killed? How many?” Quite likely her utterance is more shocking than any answer, for these are taboo topics while visiting a soldier at the front, where there is no room for feelings and they can only get in the way. Then when will the real conversations transpire, about the honest truth of loss?
At times the film’s themes wax lofty, and the grandmother, wise for all her years, undauntedly badgers the commander, “It’s easy to destroy. But do you know how to build? What will they be prepared to do when they leave this occupation?” At other times her mother wit shows itself with a bigger propensity for trust than skepticism or fear, as displayed in her amazingly easy and immediate bonding with a Chechen woman (Raisa Gichaeva) she meets selling cigarettes. A former teacher, the woman invites her in for tea, and in her meager shell of a home, has the grace to coax Alexandra into putting her legs up for a rest and accepting an escort back to the camp.
Increasingly the film bares its soul as a sad and tender love story, its finale carrying a wish and a hope for understanding and peace. Less about the politics of a particular historical situation and more about the frailty of humanity, Alexandra is a film seeking out the soft spots where people can be in touch again. When words fail, gestures prevail, and an old intimacy resurrects itself between Denis and his grandmother, a familial love that is visceral, tangible, and sensual. As in Father and Son, another of Sokurov’s portraits of a distended military family (with loose reference to Afghanistan) relishing a moment of proximity, physical contact, in all its tactile and pictorial beauty, is exalted on the screen.
Sokurov’s approach to sensuality vis-à-vis war might hastily be compared to that of his friend and compatriot Tarkovsky in such films as Ivan’s Childhood or Mirror with their exquisite play of time and the texture of their images; or even to Claire Denis’ austerely awe-filled choreography of Legionnaires at the Gulf of Aden in Beau Travail, heavy as the film is with dialogue and back-story; or with Bruno Dumont’s arrestingly esoteric Flanders — all of which comment on the devastation of war. However Sokurov’s parched and bleached landscape, which ranges from the sepia tones of his de-saturated color to a complete fade to white in one crucial scene, works on a register entirely his own, oddly contrasted as it is with the very real details of the army camp and the bombed out dwellings of the villagers Alexandra visits. Recalling the cinematic languages of Dovshenko and Bergman, Sokurov’s films speak through a keenly orchestrated intonation, and this, he has said, begins with atmosphere, the most inherent attribute of cinema.
Sound plays a crucial role in that atmosphere. If (according to Sokurov) the intellectual meaning of the film is embodied in images, the emotional depth is achieved through sound, which can add nuances to the film’s intonation and even build the character or generate an atmosphere entirely absent in the screenplay. In Alexandra, Sokurov delights in the interplay between the dramatic and the symbolic uses of sound. This dynamic tension helps to deliver the elegiac aspect of the film — that which we remember “with great sadness, with a vengeful annoyance, and with love.”
Much of this tension rests in subtle dualities. Alexandra’s particular name is eponymous with the universal protector of humanity. Likewise the film transpires both within the day at-hand and also outside of history. In this way, time on the screen is the eternal moment, “the present continuous,” as Sokurov has referred to it, at once soberly real and strangely mythical. Alexandra is not a historical film but a film about history, about the repetition and futility of war in the face of a life force that will always resist it because life is stronger. To this effect, opera grande doyenne Galina Vishnevskaya lends a special aura to the film, her voice preceding her, if ever so softly and liltingly, as early as the beginning credits on the opening black screen. Before we even see her painfully lift her legs down the steps of the armored train, that nightingale trill places us in the moment of her youth, after her war, half a century ago when her life’s promise was renewed. Whether as a strong but humble character, a public icon, or a personal muse, Vishnevskaya inspires and carries the film.
Alexandra’s lean narrative and sparse dialogue are in concert with the lyrical effect of the overall film and its uncanny mythical quality, so that what we hear feeds our sense of the atmosphere every bit as much as what we see. Andrey Sigle’s music in Alexandra, ever evocative and never intrusive, beautiful in its own right, haunts with an indelible impression.
If Andrey Sigle’s score is an anthem to Chechens, and the character Alexandra Nikolaevna is the namesake and soul of writer-director Alexander Nikolaevich Sokurov, the film is a paean to Galina Vishnevskaya, both the legend and the person, and to peace.
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