Russian opera legend Galina Vishnevskaya (Галина Вишневская) plays an old grandmother visiting her grandson serving in Chechnya in Sokurov‘s recent film Alexandra. Jay Weissberg of Variety writes:
“Alexandra” inhabits a world of specificity and universality. The setting is Chechnya, and Alexandra’s questioning of “what is the Fatherland?” is an undeniable critique of that particular conflict, sure to make Vladimir Putin mighty uncomfortable. But Sokurov uses this one seemingly endless conflict to reflect upon the totality of the war experience, not in some superficial and sentimental way but by revealing the loss of basic humanity.
Elderly, no-nonsense Alexandra Nikolaevna (Vishnevskaya) arrives at her grandson’s army base after a long journey. She hasn’t seen Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) in seven years; following the initial joy of meeting he takes her on a tour of the base, where she watches soldiers barely old enough to grow facial hair cleaning their guns. Later on Denis gives her a Kalashnikov to hold. “It’s so easy” she says, surprise and unease in her voice, after she pulls the trigger. Rest of the review.
The review of this film from KinoKultura (New Russian Cinema) describes it as following:
To situate Alexandra accurately, however, one must still consider the director’s growing disregard for plot, its secular and earthbound status, even at the same time as it is offered to us in Alexandra. Here the issue is not the presence or absence of plot (as in Mother and Son), but its status, the filmmaker’s changing relationship to it as a kind of spiritual lapse. Narrative—a profane if necessary element of filmmaking—occupies a low status in Sokurov’s world. “If the film is based on the principle of the story, the narrative,” he insists unequivocally, “it is not art” (“An Interview” 18). Iurii Arabov, his frequent scriptwriter, confirms this preference: “A large part of the films of world cinema,” Arabov asserts in an interview with Irina Liubarskaia, “are anchored in the plot. Aleksandr Nikolaevich goes against this flood.”
Sokurov’s films may sometimes be stylistically ornamented, decorative, even self-trivializing, akin in certain ways to Muratova’s work. Films of this ornamental type are filled with pageantry, spectacle, and extravagant distraction. They are often thickly plotted—such as Mournful Indifference —but they need not be; Russian Ark, for example, has little substantive plot other than the flow of rooms and history, but is an example of the ornamental Sokurov.
Opposed to this stylistic ornamentalism is the Sokurov who is austere and uncluttered, whose value lies in texture and severity: Mother and Son is the best-known example, but his military documentaries and his lesser-known Japanese stories are others. While these austere films tend to lack plot, this is not universally the case, and Alexandra is an example of a plotted, austere film. These two key oppositions—one that cares about the medium (painting/narrative), the other, style (ornamental/austere)—help to define the kind of cinema we see in Sokurov’s newest work.
Here are some more reactions:
DIANE SIPPL: Owing to the classical composition of the film in both image and sound, from its painterly frames to its measured rhythm and structure, it flows like a sonata: andante, andante con motto, and andante. The first movement, set to the pace of Alexandra Nikolaevna (Galina Vishnevskaya) and the stately stride of her elderly body as she arrives by armored train and tours and interrogates the military unit of her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), a highly respected captain, gives way to the second movement, her self-willed trek to the market in the nearby village where she mingles with the local Chechen inhabitants to get a taste of their life. The third movement returns her to the base with a more piercing round of the same questions for Denis about his well-being, his future, his place in the war, and the place of war in the world.
Alexandra is full of questions, and significantly, she insists that these questions are important to her. Quietly we come to realize that this is because all too few are being asked. Simple questions like “Where do you wash?” or “What do you read?” turn to more pressing queries such as how to load a gun and how to shoot. “Oh — it’s so easy?” Soon enough it’s “Have you killed? How many?” Quite likely her utterance is more shocking than any answer, for these are taboo topics while visiting a soldier at the front, where there is no room for feelings and they can only get in the way. Then when will the real conversations transpire, about the honest truth of loss? Read the rest.
JAMES ULMER: While the Soviet regime banned most of Sokurov’s early works, he produced many documentaries during his early years, including an interview with the dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It was the feature Mother and Son in 1996 that first brought him international acclaim, a success followed by Father. Before his most recent film Alexandra, he completed the first three features of a planned tetraology on leading rulers of the 20th century, including Moloch (1999) about Hitler, Taurus (2000) about Lenin and The Sun (2004), about Emperor Hirohito.
A poet and metaphysician as well as a filmmaker, Sokurov is frequently compared to Tarkovsky, a comparison he has shunned in the past. Although both director’s films have intensely spiritual elements, Tarkovsky’s are known for their spiritually optimistic tenor while Sokurov’s resonate with a more spiritually oppressive and somber outlook. He is the author of more than 40 features and documentary films and has won numerous prizes at festivals in Cannes (where four of his features have debuted), Venice, Berlin, Locarno, Rotterdam, Montreal and Moscow. His most commercial and critically successful effort to date has been Russian Ark (2002), a full-length, semi-documentary feature praised for its hypnotic images and shot in Hermitage Museum in a single, unedited take.
For Alexandra, Sokurov tells the story of an ailing grandmother who struggles to visit her grandson, an officer in the Russian army, in a camp in Chechnya during that region’s current civil war. The director manages to avoid shots of battle and death and instead concentrates intensely on the landscape of the camp and town and, tellingly, of his leading actress’ face, the great Russian opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Read the rest.
Сокуров о фильме «Александра»
Наша новая картина сыграна в основном только актерами. Здесь меня интересует собственно характер. В этом фильме «коллекция» характеров. Влияние литературы, которое было и в прежних моих картинах, здесь многое определяет. Вероятно, это связано с сюжетом, с темой. А может, дело в том, что я выступаю сам в качестве автора сценария. Эта картина в какой–то мере продолжает тему взаимоотношений между людьми разного пола и разного возраста, тему таких моих картин, как «Мать и сын», «Отец и сын», мотивы фильмов японской серии, где речь идет о впечатлениях от жизни уходящей — «Восточная элегия», «Смиренная жизнь», «Дольче». В новой картине есть впечатления только сегодняшнего дня, люди, живущие сегодняшним настроением. Но при этом главный герой — персонаж лермонтовского типа. Немного фаталист, но не циничный, не ироничный, не жесткий, а трепетный человек. История превращения или выращивания мужского характера, это отчасти и толстовская традиция. Читать дальше.