Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Grandma goes to a war zone

Alexandr Sokurov, the much-admired Russian director, returns to the screen with "Alexandra," a movie about a grandmother (opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya) who visits her grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) at a military outpost on the Chechen front. The idea that a soldier's grandmother could visit a battle zone seems startling and preposterous, but it sets the stage for a quietly determined drama in which Vishnevskaya's character becomes both commentator and witness.

The young soldiers serving in Chechnya take a liking to her, perhaps because she represents a touch of familial warmth that they've nearly forgotten. But Vishnevskaya's character isn't exactly warm and cuddly. She's a tough old bird.

Sokurov, who directed "Russian Ark," a true masterpiece, has made another film that's bound to tax the patience of multiplex addicts who seem to control summer's moviegoing. We don't know exactly why Alexandra made this visit to her grandson Denis; we're taken aback by a late-picture scene in which Denis braids his grandmother's hair with a tenderness that's nearly erotic; we're not entirely sure how Sokurov feels about war, although an aura of futility overhangs everything that the soldiers do and say. This feeling of fatigue seems as real as the ravages of age that work on Alexandra. She frequently comments on how dirty everything is. The soldiers hardly notice. The dirt has become part of them.

The film's meaning seems to live in Vishnevskaya's every gesture. She's 81, and her character is presented as a woman whose aches and pains have real weight. She moves in slow, labored fashion, as if she's walking against the long tide of history. Sokurov leaves plenty of room for us to interpret just what the character of Alexandra represents -- all grandmothers, the Russian soul?

If you know Sokurov's work, you know that not much will happen, that much will be suggested and that you'll be able to talk for a long time about what the film is trying to say. I think Sokurov poses a haunting, awful question: When all the illusions are gone, what's left? It's a question that Sokurov rightly suggests we answer for ourselves.

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