No country for old “Alexandra” (2007)

4 February 2011

Don’t laugh: I really did intend to watch a wintery film, but was misled by the poster for Alexandra by Russian director Alexander Sokurov. Turns out, that bleak whiteness on the DVD cover wasn’t supposed to invoke a Russian winter but a stiflingly hot summer on the front of the Second Chechen War. Not that I’m complaining, as it turns out this is a terrific, surreal film that could be the female equivalent of No Country For Old Men, except without the Coens’ violence/black humor nexus. It follows Alexandra as she travels out to the front to see her grandson, Denis, now a captain at a depressing military barracks. Occasionally the film offers an anti-war message — certainly it takes a dim view of that War that began in 1999 and continues today, not unlike the U.S.’s own endless Afghan War — but its goals go further and deeper. It’s deceptively slow, poetic in its dialogue, utterly compelling. I loved it.

Alexandra Nikolaevna (Galina Vishnevskaya) is a bit at loose ends: her body creaks, her mind wanders, and even though her bully of a husband died two years ago, he seems to have left a void. We first see her being helped slowly, gently into an empty boxcar on the train by heavily armed soldiers, as if she can barely manage the unexpectedness of it all. This is misleading, as she displays a terrific curiosity about everything once she arrives, even as she gets confused. The barracks soldiers are all dirty, slightly menacing, and because it’s so hot they stand about shirtless, rippled with muscles. But they’re so, so young. We watch them as Alexandra does, baffled: what are we to make of these manly children carrying such big weapons? Alexandra’s perpetual scowl begs us to look on these soldiers with strange eyes; it also, occasionally, veers into a childish fascination with brutality. When Denis maneuvers her inside a tank — smelly with oil and metal and the body odor of too many men — she picks up his rifle, positions the butt against her shoulder, and pulls the trigger of an empty chamber. “It’s easy,” she announces, with a sudden sang froid.

Out here in Chechnya, her views of the world get skewed. When she asks the handsome 27-year-old Denis when he plans to marry, he warns her not to get her hopes up. It’s not for lack of women, he confesses frankly. It’s that he’s killed too many people. The other soldiers look on her with a strange mix of disinterest and longing for such a maternal presence. When she trudges down the road a bit to the market run by Chechen women, she has an unexpected meeting of the minds with an elderly woman who operates one of the stalls. Yet even as Alexandra relaxes in her presence and even makes a gesture to the ways that women are always “sisters,” the two women know well how much they are divided by ancient tribal barriers between Russians and Chechens; no sentimental line can ease the anger between those peoples. The film proceeds by using such beautiful contrasts, all swirling around Alexandra’s muddled mind.

Sokurov has explained that this film is about “the eternal life of Russia,” yet what he means by that is clearly quite complex. Is it Alexandra’s worn body, waddling through a minefield with her wheeled shopping cart? Is it the sad hubris of a military dedicated to quashing the rebels in Chechnya? Is it Denis’ hard life contrasted with his gentleness in braiding his granny’s long hair? You can see why this film offers so many pleasures; even more so when I learned afterward the back story of the star actor here: after a long career as a celebrated soprano, Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich (a cellist and conductor) were dissidents in the 1970s whose protection of the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn led to their exile and being stripped of their citizenship; they only returned to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact that in her role as Alexandra Vishnevskaya partly symbolizes this Russia makes the film’s messages all the more compounded, ambiguous.

So what will I do without a wintry film to watch? I’m thinking of celebrating this cold day with the 8-year-old girl across the street by reading Joan Aikin’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. Way back, I remember how the chilliness evoked in those books helped me cool off during hot summers; now I simply want to enjoy the rare Texas cold for the few minutes we’ve got left.

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