Grandma’s War: A review of “Alexandra”

Kenneth Crab Apr 10, 2008

directed by Alexander Sokurov
Cinema Guild, 2007

Muted, blank colors give the universe of Alexandra an aura of fading immanence equivalent to the timeworn spirit of its title character, Alexandra Nikolaevna (opera icon Galina Vishnevskaya), whose large-as-life-itself presence envelops the three-day visit she pays her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), a captain stationed at an army outpost in Grozny, Chechnya. Exceptional mastery of scale has always been a trademark of Alexander Sokurov’s filmmaking, insofar as what we perceive on screen encompasses the entire universe as filtered through his protagonist’s consciousness. Alexandra never experiences any combat, and Sokurov relegates it outside the scope of the film, which he has insisted evokes eternity rather than historical contingency. The moral conviction behind his exclusive poetics of grandeur is that direct, concrete representation of armed conflict can only serve a glorifying function. The devastating impact of warfare rather transpires in the Russian troops’ dispassionate routine, the rubble of the nearby township, the momentous fatigue Alexandra suffers, and the languorous, mournful sweep of Andrei Sigle’s score. With this conception of the war movie as requiem, Alexandra brings to fruition in Sokurov’s oeuvre an offshoot of the old Soviet belief in communal transcendence of inequity.

An ambassador for stubborn, robust humanity, Alexandra provides a rare reprieve from the daily grind of war that holds both the occupying forces and the local people in its grip, and brings out the tentative solidarity of their shared endurance. Initially, as Denis takes his grandmother on a tour of the camp, she provokes in the young men looks ranging from utter indifference to vague recognition and almost tender bemusement at the unexpected appearance of a matron saint. Before long, though, her business-as-usual blends with that of the soldiers, as she takes their orders of cigarettes and biscuits on her way to the market. There she meets Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), an elderly Chechen woman who invites her home to rest and share a cup of tea. Such generosity creates a comfort zone that allows Alexandra to unveil the incentive for her trip: she had not seen her grandson in seven years; her husband has been dead for two years; she feels tired, lonely and mortal… Malika recounts the losses she herself has suffered, and they concur that war is the doing of men.

Back at the barracks, the evening before her departure, Alexandra’s brief yet intense heart-to-heart with Denis only hints at family tensions as deeply rooted as the generational divide between the two of them, but also renders palpable, sensual, even erotic a flow of loving memories. Thus Sokurov expands the daring explorations of physical intimacy that determines parent-child relationships in his earlier Mother and Son (1997) and Father and Son (2003). The film’s crowning scene shows Denis, a mighty hunk of a man child, braiding his grandma’s hair like a little boy, and Alexandra embracing him like a smitten girl, intoning how wonderful men are. Contradictions continue to abound, but the heartfelt, hopeful final goodbyes Alexandra exchanges with some of the town’s ladies, and the invitation she extends to Malika to come visit her, make perfect, resolute sense. Beholden to its force-of-nature heroine, Sokurov’s latest opus hits home as a quintessential women’s film.

Alexandra is playing at the Film Forum through April 22.

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