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ALEXANDRA (Aleksandra) (director/writer: Aleksandr Sokurov; cinematographer: Aleksandr Burov; editor: Sergei Ivanov; music: Andrey Sigle; cast: Galina Vishnevskaya (Alexandra Nikolaevna), Vasily Shevtsov (Denis), Raisa Gichaeva (Malika); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Andrey Sigle/Laurent Danielou; Cinema Guild; 2007-Russia/France-in Russian & Chechen with English subtitles)
“The atmospheric anti-war film is an example of cinema as pure feeling.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Aleksandr Sokurov (“The Sun”/”Father and Son”/”Russian Ark”), the son of a Soviet military officer, presents an unusual masterpiece. The atmospheric anti-war film is an example of cinema as pure feeling, which shows no bloodshed. It’s shot on location at a Russian army field headquarters in the civil-war zone near the war-torn city of Grozny, Chechnya.

The plotless story is about a recently widowed lonely and cranky octogenarian grandmother named Alexandra Nikolaevna (Galina Vishnevskaya, the opera soprano widow of the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich) who visits her Army captain grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), someone she has not seen for seven years.

During the second Chechen war, the old-fashioned Alexandra exits an armored transport train and descends to a dusty station, where there are many Russian troops milling around. Taken in a tank to the nearby Russian camp at night, she awakens in the barracks the next morning, in a stifling heat wave, to find her 27-year-old grandson sleeping. The weary granny warmly greets her grandson, who takes her on a tour of the ramshackle base and lets her handle a Kalashnikov. When Denis goes out on a patrol, the busybody intrepidly strolls around the barracks and disapprovingly inspects it.

Because of the heat, granny can’t sleep and curiously wanders the outpost at night while not intimidated by the military surroundings, and makes her presence known to two guards unsuccessfully trying to get her to go back. She berates in a motherly tone one soldier for playing with his rifle and when another asks her for food, she gives each of the hungry young boys a homemade meat pie.

The next morning Denis is still away on patrol, so she goes past the checkpoint to the marketplace in the city and promises to get the guards cigarettes and candy. The walk to the marketplace reveals the town’s devastation and that the sullen young Chechen men hate the Russians. But granny relates to the Chechen grannies, and is invited to the largely ruined apartment of an elderly stall vender, a former Chechen teacher, named Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), as they share a universal sisterhood of humanism and a common destiny of long-suffering.

Returning to the base, she converses with her killing machine and lady killer grandson. She tells him it’s time he got married and further adds ‘I’m fed up with this military pride! ‘You can kill. When will you build?’ She wonders out loud what’s in store for her impoverished career soldier grandson: ‘What does he know but how to kill.’ The next morning she departs, as the occupation goes on.

The only time Russia’s military presence in the region is openly questioned by a local, has a Chechen youngster ask Alexandra, “Why don’t you let us be free?” She can only reply with a sigh: “If only it was that simple.”

Alexandra is a film that tells us that maybe grannies know best: intelligence is more powerful than military might. It questions Russian patriotism as an unreasonable love for a fatherland that no longer exists and a motherland that is too stifling and irascible for a civilized country to suffer the indignities of such a not winnable and unnecessary prolonged war. It’s an artistic personal film, shot like no other film I can recall. Sokurov keeps it accessible but poignant, showing a love for all the characters featured and even sneers with contempt on the terrorists who are kidnappers (Alexandra brutally explains it’s in their genes). It’s fascinating to watch the mesmerizing performance by Galina Vishnevskaya and take in the stunning sights of the shocking war-torn landscape; a don’t miss film, that deserves all the praise that was heaped upon it.

Andrei Sigle’s stirring compositions bring back memories of the late 19th century Russian composers.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”