Your NPR news source

Alexandra

Alexandra

The 82-year-old Galina Vishnevskaya is a major Russian opera star until his death in 2007, she was married to the great cellist and conductor, Mstistlav Rostropovich. Like Maria Callas years ago in Pasolini's film of Medea, Vishnevskaya takes on a speaking, non-singing role in Alexander Sokurov's new film, ALEXANDRA.

Alexandra Nikolaevna, played by Vishnevskaya, goes to visit her grandson at his army base in Chechnya . It is a long journey. She hasn't seen the grandson, Denis, in seven years. Denis takes his grandmother on a tour of the army base. She watches the young soldiers as they clean their guns. She wanders off from the army camp to visit the destroyed town, where she meets Malika, a former teacher, now reduced to trying to make ends meet by selling cigarettes at a market stall. Malika, seeing how exhausted Alexandra is from the heat, takes her to her bombed out home, where she makes her tea.

Alexander Sokurov who directed Alexandra is the acclaimed Russian filmmaker whose films include arty,  poetic and metaphorical films like Mother and Son and The Russian Ark. Sokurov's feature films are close to the poetic style of his documentaries like Moscow Elegy or Elegy of the Land – many of them slow, beautiful and poignant.

ALEXANDRA is neither slow nor overly self-consciously poetic. It is perhaps Sokurov's most directly political film. Set and shot near the nearly-destroyed town of Grozny , the capital of Chechnya , it features no real conflict or violence. Sokurov prefers to look at the human side of war through the eyes of those on both sides of the conflict: the young soldiers, many of them barely teenagers, sent to fight a conflict with people they neither know nor understand. Many of those on the other side, like Malika, the teacher whom Alexandra befriends, are victims.

When her grandson gives Alexandra a Kalishnikov to hold, she pulls the trigger, and says, “It's so easy.”

Alexandra, as a character, is built into a figure of archetypal proportions. She is a feisty, wise and grand presence, a Mother Courage and the all-knowing-all-suffering mother in one person. She is Vera Baranovskaya in Pudovkin's great and now-too-unjustly-forgotten silent film, The Mother and she is the tragic Anna Magnani in Rossellini's Open City. She tells Denis' commander, “You've been fighting for so long. You know how to destroy, but do you know how to build?”

We see what war does to destroy largely in the silent, desolate landscape of Chechnya, shelled and bombed into a wasteland – it's a wasteland where people still have to live, survive, and remain human.

Sokurov himself is the son of a Soviet military officer, and he spent his childhood moving with his family from base to base. It's a milieu with which he is familiar. Yet unlike the many other films which have been made in Russia about the Chechen war, including the violent and brutalizing films of Alexei Balabanov, like War, Sokurov's style is elegiac and eternal.

The Chechnya we see here could just as easily be Iraq , Afghanistan or Darfur . War, and the tragedy of war, is how it repeats itself. As J. Hoberman astutely pointed out in The Village Voice, the films of Sokurov often pointedly evolve into the psychosexual. The relationships between parent and child in Sokurov's films Mother and Son and the later Father and Son are suggestive of incest. Perhaps the incest remains suppressed, but the overly-sweet intimacy goes beyond mature love. So it is in Alexandra – the parting of grandmother and grandson – is almost erotic. Alexandra goes back home, Denis remains in the Army. Nothing has changed. Only the landscape remains as a witness to the endlessness conflicts which leave no room for intensity which embody love.

This is Milos Stehlik for Chicago Public Radio's Worldview.

More From This Show