Russia and France, 2007
Color, 90 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Screenplay: Aleksandr Sokurov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Burov
Art Director: Dmitrii Malich-Kon'kov
Cast: Galina Vishnevskaia, Vasilii Shevtsov, Raisa Gichaeva, Evgenii Tkachuk, Andrei Bogdanov, Aleksandr Klad'ko
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Production: Proline-film (Russia) and Rezofilm (France) with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography of the Russian Federation and the Centre National de la Cinématographie
One might describe Aleksandr Sokurov's newest feature film, Alexandra, as aggressively simple. Its simplicity insists on a poetic, metaphorical reading of its characters and situations, and on extensive interpretation of its sparse dialogue. The very name of the film serves to suggest archetypal allusions rather than to designate the film's protagonist: the heroine is never addressed so simply. For everyone except her grandson, she is invariably Aleksandra Nikolaevna, which in turn echoes the name of the director, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Sokurov. The role itself was created for the great opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaia, without whose participation Sokurov, by his own admission, would not have made the film. Her image, and the personality that stands behind it, lends the character particular depth and significance, and the viewer cannot help but listen for the authoritative voice with which such a figure must surely speak. One can hardly begin to discuss this film without raising this heroine to the level of the spiritual and the symbolic. In this, Alexandra bears the signature of its director, who is perhaps best known to Western audiences for Russian Ark (2002), his homage to Russian high culture. The difference here is that this film's theme insists on other, less elevated readings that ultimately cannot be suppressed by its author's insistence on the timelessness of the message.
The film begins with the completely implausible visit of the elderly Aleksandra Nikolaevna (Vishnevskaia) to the military outpost in Chechnya at which her grandson, Denis (Vasilii Shevtsov), has been serving for seven years. The film never explains how such a remarkable visit could be permitted, nor does the viewer ever get a comprehensive picture of this woman's biography. Most information about the protagonist comes through her contradictory behavior and muttered commentary. She is by turns stoic and complaining, wise and naive. She begins her visit with a tour of the base, during which her disparaging comments and questions about the soldiers' life show her in the incompatible roles of stern inspector and compassionate mother. The soldiers, for their part, relate to her as both honored guest and maternal surrogate. The next day she makes an excursion into town to buy cigarettes and sweets for the soldiers at an outdoor market. Her adventure while AWOL from the military base illustrates both her alienation from the Chechen population and her almost instant sense of female solidarity with the older women at the market. When not engaged in conversation, she is ceaselessly walking, the sound of her footsteps being one of the most pervasive, if understated sound elements of the film. Her conversations with the soldiers, the Chechen women, and, most significantly, with her grandson tantalize us with details of her life and worldview, but they never give us enough information with which to understand her standpoint and, through her, perhaps comprehend the message that Sokurov wishes to communicate through this story. In fact, the film does not even give us the information that almost all viewers will surely take for granted. Nowhere is it stated in the film that the action takes place in Chechnya; nowhere do we see evidence that any military action is taking place at all. We never learn why, or even to what extent, the local population regards the heroine and her compatriots with genuine hostility. Careful viewers, limiting themselves only to the information actually presented in image and dialogue, come away from this film with very little empirical food for thought. We are, nevertheless, forced by the film's topical content to fill in the blank spots of the diagesis with our background knowledge and to endow the action with a significance that rests on very little evidence.
In his not infrequent comments on the film, Sokurov repeatedly states that his concern has nothing to do with contemporary political issues, but with the eternal problems that come in the aftermath of any war. To take one example from an interview in Arguments and Facts (21 November 2007), Sokurov characterizes his view of the situation depicted in Alexandra:
|I know the horrible price with which today's peace in Chechnya has been bought. I am aware of the many crimes and brutality seen during the war. But the war is over and we ought to come together again, respecting the losses endured on both sides. Our film is an artistic invention, not a piece of political journalism.|
Juxtaposed with Sokurov's ruminations about a war that "is over" is Vishnevskaia's description of daily life as the film was being shot in Grozny, during which the Chechen partisan/terrorist leader Shamil Basaev was killed. She recalls living in an FSB encampment, a doubly-walled compound that could only be accessed through three separate armed and gated guardposts. During travel to the set, the crew was accompanied by an armed security force of over a half-dozen men. Alexandra, the first Russian film to be shot in Chechnya itself (as opposed to a neighboring republic), is indeed about a Chechnya that exists only in the "artistic invention" of its author. As in so many contemporary interpretations of war, this one too is characterized above all by cognitive dissonance. The dissonance in this case, however, is to be located neither with the author nor the viewer, but in the very fabric of the film—repressed into silence, but palpable nonetheless.
Aleksandr Sokurov was born in 1951 in the region of Irkutsk into a military family. After graduating from university with a degree in history, he worked for a time in television before entering the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow, where he studied to become a film director and graduated in 1978. His diploma film, The Lonely Voice of Man, fell victim to Soviet censorship and, like most of his other early films, was shelved until the advent of perestroika. Since 1980, he has worked officially at Lenfilm studios, where he was hired on the recommendation of Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian director with whom he is often compared. The director and/or scriptwriter of over 40 feature and documentary films, Sokurov is one of the most productive filmmakers in Russia today as well as a fiercely outspoken advocate of artistic filmmaking in opposition to the growing omnipresence of commercial cinema in his homeland.
Filmography (features only):
2004 The Sun
2003 Father and Son
2002 Russian Ark
1996 Mother and Son
1993 Whispering Pages
1990 The Second Circle
1989 Save and Protect
1988 Days of the Eclipse
1983 Painful Indifference