Not a single weapon is fired in the Russian anti-war film Alexandra -- at least, none of the literal kind. The bombs here are all metaphoric, just like they had to be in classic Soviet-era cinema, where borscht was never just borscht.
And yet, there's nothing coy about Aleksandr Sokurov's contemplative drama. Quite the opposite: Toward the end, when the characters finally begin to have conversations, Sokurov makes it clear what he's up to. Fortunately that clarity revolves around the paradox of war, so it ends up being a bit of a challenge after all.
The plot is simple -- but then again, not so much. The eponymous Alexandra is a weary old grandmother who's been granted permission to visit her grandson, Denis, a captain in a unit of an Army camp inside Chechnya. The journey is long and uncomfortable, but she's a Russian rock, taking it all without complaint.
On the contrary, she gives orders ("stop playing with your weapon"), and the men do what she says. At first it seems like they're just listening to Granny. But after a while you get the impression that she's an old Soviet apparatchik -- although Sokurov never makes that certain.
"People like you no longer visit," the company commander says to her. "What was worrying you?" She doesn't answer, and instead tells him, "You've been fighting so long you're used to it now." Her own 27-year-old grandson has never had a job and counts on the military for his income. When Denis laments the people he's killed, she comforts him with, "A man down isn't necessarily dead." This is the power of positive thinking, at war with itself.
During her tour of duty with Denis, she takes a long walk to a Chechen marketplace, where Malika, a woman her own age, invites her home to a bombed-out apartment building for tea. They talk, and their words evoke the sentimentality (or banality) that we sometimes hear in American politics.
"Why be bad?" Malika says, explaining her hospitality to a Russian. "Men can be bad. But we're like sisters straight away." She means there would be no wars if women ran the show. But Alexandra, with her incisive scowl, says only: "Do you think it's so simple?" These are the words of an aggressor, albeit one who's now stoically questioning what she's believed in all these years.
As a character, Alexandra is an absorbing creation: watchful, surly and quietly acted by Galena Vishnevskaya (a famous Soviet-era soprano, now in her 80s). As a metaphor, she can't decide whether she's a grandmother or a Russian. But for the Chechens she encounters, things are clearer. "Only part of our selves is tied to you," Malika asserts. "We are people in our own rights." Alexandra does not consent, and later, she tells a Chechen lad that desiring freedom is folly: It's intelligence, not weapons, that will set him free (an aphorism taught to her by a Japanese friend).
Alexandra moves seamlessly between its tenderness and its harder edge. The many shots of young men with smooth skin and baby faces don't require a subtext, and Alexandra's frequent lassitude clearly represents more than just her age and weight. ("Are you tired?" someone asks her. "Certainly not," she lies, defiantly.) Her meanderings seem almost dreamlike after a while, and at times she becomes pure metaphor: the old drifting among the new, like a page torn from a history book.
Sokurov films the daylight scene of Alexandra in drab dusty colors and brilliant sunlight that washes out the images. His nighttime scenes are practically black and white, and they recall the bittersweet 1959 Russian anti-war classic Ballad of a Soldier. Yet his often-jittery camera and overlapping dialogue sometimes feels Altman-esque, like M*A*S*H. This isn't groundbreaking cinema, not even from 21st-century Russia. But it's good to see that Putin has left his country's artists enough freedom to poke him in the ribs. In Russian and a little Chechen, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., June 20. Regent Square
- Arms and the woman: Galena Vishnevskaya as Alexandra