Written & Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Full credits from IMDb
In its analysis of mother Russia’s historical thrust, Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark (Russkiy Kovcheg) spoke specifically to its native audience; but it captivated foreign audiences as well, thanks in large part to the sheer mastery of its form—through the astounding gimmick of its unbroken and yet wildly mobile single take. To boot, its main character was hopelessly lost and confused from the first frame, and thus easy for the perplexed audience to latch on to. (Even better: the film plays out from his point of view; the first-person camera essentially makes the viewer the main character, particularly as other characters speak directly into the lens.)
The main character of his new, almost self-titled film, Alexandra (Aleksandra), on the other hand, is rather self-assured and thus doesn’t exactly welcome outsiders in. She knows exactly where she is, even if we don’t, and exactly what she thinks. The film works universally, in some ways, as a snapshot of the toll that war—especially endless war—takes on the individual and national psyches (as well as the physical landscape), a snapshot that could be loosely applied to, say, the War on Terror. But more so Sokurov is once again speaking directly to the Russian condition, including the generation gap and its causes; for international audiences, then, Alexandra slides into thematic esotericism. Despite its hefty and often beautiful images (one character is neatly summed up in an introductory shot of his abraded bare feet), as well as its sound performances, Alexandra lacks the gliding, first person dreaminess that made Russian Ark so accessible. The latter was entrancing, stupefying; Alexandra is just slow.
Perhaps if the film were more inviting, it might not seem to have the pacing problems that it seems to have. But, particularly in its first half, watching Alexandra is like strolling, slowly, down the street with grandma; there is a pleasure to be had from soaking in the world with such patience, but it can easily turn frustrating. Let’s get where we’re going already. Pick it up, lady.
Galina Vishnevskaya, a well known Soviet soprano, plays the title character, a stern old lady and natural materfamilias—she doesn’t hesitate to literally and figuratively push armed soldiers around as though they were small children or uxorious husbands—who arrives at a military outpost to visit her grandson (Vasily Shevtsov). She wanders the jerrybuilt barracks, and its rocky paths, in what look like painted-on shoes, talking to the soldiers; she also travels off-base to talk to the townspeople, the army’s enemies, all the while assessing the state of the motherland, doling out wisdom and receiving a bit of her own.
Alexandra’s dialogue is often a bit unbecomingly overt—“you can destroy,” Vishneyskaya tells the soldiers, “when will you learn to build?”—but its pace is so sleepy and striding that it manages to avoid feeling heavy-handed. In fact, Alexandra could almost be a comedy, a clash of cultures and generations, were it not for the unremittingly bleak surroundings.
Oppressively soaked in sunstroke orange and camouflage green, Sokurov’s frames capture the fragile and temporary quality of life during wartime. Every opening of a door on the military base rattles the walls, as though the tents and shanty shacks are about to fall down, while the buildings in town (presumably in Chechnya) are crumbling, folded-over, and bombed-out. Sokurov suggests that because the situation is so dangerous, or more so because it’s gone on for so long—the guns are remarked to be old, the tanks have dusty, creaky hatches—long-term construction becomes infeasible.
But, presumably to get past the censors, Alexandra strives to be even-handed, to fairly represent the points of view of the Russians and the Chechens, the soldiers and the civilians. No matter how much airtime Sokurov gives the disparate sides, though, his main point is that war, even beyond its life and death powers, doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run. (The surrounding fields are dusty, the vegetation just budding—as war prevents plants from growing, so too does it stall Russia’s “growth” as a nation.) But Alexandra, while at times sublimely moving, is for the most part too listless to be funny or sad or sweet, tearjerkingly or otherwise. It’s just a stern and somber lesson that mostly goes straight over my non-Russian head.
Watch the Trailer: (no subtitles)