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Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings.
An instant anomaly, Alexandra clambers out from a transport train into a dusty station — presumably at some point during the second Chechen war. Stern and stolid, when not sighing with annoyance, the old lady is surrounded by Russian troops and a swirl of whispers, laughs and faint melody. Atmosphere is everything.
Alexandra has come to see her grandson, an army captain in his late twenties. She's escorted to the base, at one point riding in a tank. The soldiers love her. It's as if the resolute babushka from the famous World War II poster "The Motherland-Mother Calls" had suddenly materialized among them. Alexandra's fierce, blunt busybody is almost a monument — as Vishnev-skaya herself is considered a national treasure. Weary and indomitable, she has no sense of her own incongruity; she's too busy studying the faces of the troops around her. (She loves them as well.) The next morning, Alexandra wakes up in her grandson's tent, finds him there and laughs for joy.
The son of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov spent his childhood moving from base to base, and there's a mascot quality to Alexandra as she makes her tour of inspection. The movie has no shortage of incident, but it's less a narrative than a situation: The emphasis is on boredom and routine. Blunt and plainspoken, she responds to the smells, the heat and the discomfort: "My God, it's stifling." Totally unintimidated in her wanderings, the old lady scolds one soldier for playing with his weapon; asked for food by another, she rummages in her capacious bag and pulls out a homemade meat pie. Abruptly, Sokurov cuts to a shockingly beautiful long shot of a flaming landscape.
Her grandson back out on patrol, Alexandra leaves the base on a mission of her own to procure sweets and cigarettes for the sentries. En route to town, she finds ample evidence of the war's destruction. The landscape is a wasteland, the city is rubble and the marketplace is filled with sullen Chechens. Alexandra manages to engage the elderly women there, evoking an international of grandmothers in a scene that would have been far more sentimental were it not so predicated on the bone-weariness of old age. Now that she has the lay of the land, willful Alexandra has words with her grandson. She is not without certain anti-Chechen prejudices, but she identifies with their plight. Moreover, she wants to know why he is engaged in this sterile occupation. Why hasn't he married? He tells her that family is even more oppressive than the army.
Unlike earlier filmmakers, Sokurov insisted on making his film on location in Chechnya. Let the earth and the air speak. His camera maneuvers to capture precise slivers of sunlight on the ground; the color is sun-bleached, the clouds of dust rise just so. The effect is fastidious, but too ethereal to be oppressive. Sokurov may not clarify the situation in Chechnya, but in chronicling Alexandra's trip to the front, he illuminates its reality.
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