Alexandra (Aleksandra) 2007)

Alexandra (Aleksadra) first published by Film4

Summary: In Aleksandr Sokurov’s intimate epic, an aging Russian woman mourns her own mortality while visiting her soldier grandson in occupied Chechnya.

Review: “The mirror’s dirty,” complains Alexandra (Galina Vishnevskaya) to her grandson Denis (Vasili Shevtsov). “Where do you do your washing?”

Dirt and washing play like leitmotifs throughout Aleksandr Sokurov‘s Alexandra (Aleksandra), where a grandmother’s sojourn in a military camp in occupied Chechnya becomes an allegory for the conflicting state of the Russian nation – a Motherland whose loving sons are driven to acts of masculine excess. The mirror that the film holds up to Russia, though no doubt elegantly aestheticised, is seldom clean, thanks to Sokurov’s refusal to whitewash the dirtier aspects of war – even if this is, paradoxically, a war film in which war itself is never depicted.     

Alexandra is driven by the anomalous presence of its elderly female lead variously in an armoured train, in a troop carrier, in a military tent (dubbed her “hotel”, as though to underline the incongruity), in an all-male camp, in a Grozny marketplace, even in a bombed-out dwelling of the “enemy”. In one of the film’s most striking images, Alexandra even holds, cock and aims a Kalashnikov rifle (“It’s so easy,” she comments gravely). Her boundless (and fearless) curiosity about her surroundings makes her the perfect cicerone through these seldom seen terrains, yet at the same time she repeatedly emphasises her exhaustion and her difficulty with the “stifling” local conditions. “What a fool I am! Coming on this journey with my legs!”, she tells her new, similarly aged friend Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), as she enjoys tea and a rest in the kindly Chechen’s bullet-riddled apartment. Clearly, this is no country for old women

Alexandra cuts an iconic figure twice over. On the one hand, she acts as a big old babushka not just for Denis but seemingly for every young soldier she encounters, comforting them, feeding them meat pie brought from home, getting them sweets and cigarettes from the nearby market. All these trained killers stare at her as though in love and treat her with a gentle delicacy – even the stern unit captain touches her hand tenderly just before she departs. She is like a nostalgic avatar, reminding these men both of what they are fighting for, and what they have left behind. On the other hand, the very fact that she is played by Vishnevskaya, a legend of the opera stage, ensures her cherished status in the eyes of any Russian viewer. She is history itself, the very embodiment of (grand)mother Russia. And as her words near the film’s beginning (“Where are we? Is this the way?”) suggest, she is also lost.

If Alexandra is a war film, it is an unusually intimate one, dispensing with the genre’s characteristic wide shots in favour of personal portraits in medium close-up (always framed with painterly attention). Apart from a single night shot of fires burning in the distant darkness, here there is no fighting, no combat. Rather the ravages of war are measured in the nervous resolve on the Russians’ faces, the resentment on the Chechens’, and in the dusty barrenness of the landscape itself. For all the realism of its wartorn setting, Alexandra feels more like a trilogy closer for Sokurov’s previous family studies Mother and Son (1997) and Father and Son (2003) than an epic – and it is for that reason that its characters, despite revealing so little of their own background or history, ring so very true. Here the problems and divisions within a country find their analogue within the domestic sphere, where Alexandra and Denis are all at once fond lovers and bitter foes (living under the same tent roof) – and where Denis, not unlike Chechnya itself, longs to break free of his heritage and to claim his own identity.  

The episodic meandering of Alexandra – more an accumulation of symbolic scenes than a narrative proper – might suggest it would work better as a short film, while several of its messages (war is hell, deep down we are all the same) will be familiar from any number of other war films. Yet what makes Sokurov’s film worth the journey is the poetic richness of its desaturated visual composition and sound design, and the engaging character of Alexandra herself – redoubtable, rebellious, inquisitive, yet as vulnerable as a nation at war with itself. 

strap: Without actually showing combat, Aleksandr Sokurov’s intimate war film holds up a dirty mirror to (grand)mother Russia  

Anton Bitel