Monday, January 25, 2010

Alexandra: A Film by Alexander Sokurov

Alexandra is not the kind of film that you ever see being produced in Hollywood. There is almost no action and only a very subtle story line. Because the setting is so foreign and unsettling, however, I found it riveting.

The situation is never really explained, and the location is never identified. Viewers have to piece together clues from the film with their own knowledge of world events. The film is in Russian by a Russian director, so the soldiers must be Russians, and the land that they are occupying is probably Chechnya. Liner notes verify this, but in a sense it does not matter. There is a dearth of identifying marks of any kind, so the soldiers could be any soldiers stuck in any foreign land where they are not wanted. They spend most of their time in a camp outside a heavily bombed city. Everything is camouflaged - tents, tanks, uniforms - even the bench outside the tents - but security seems very lax. The soldiers themselves are mostly skinny boys with nothing to do except punch each other and hope someone will bring some cigarettes and cookies from the market.

The story is that one of the officers invites his grandmother, whom he has not seen in seven years, to visit him at the battlefront. She is brought to his camp via an old boxcar on a somewhat camouflaged train. Soldiers have to lift her up and down from the boxcar and later into a military transport vehicle to get her to camp, where there is really nothing for her to do, except wander. There is also nearly nothing to see but shades of olive and brown.

The grandmother is played by a very famous Russian opera star Galina Vishnavskaya. In this film, however, she is far from glamorous, as in very plain clothes she carries her small bag around in the dust and heat. At the market she meets angry men and sympathetic women. One woman, who had been a teacher in better days, offers her hospitality. This woman's red hat is the only relief from olive and brown in the film.

So, what's Alexandra about? It seems to me very much in the Cinéma Verité tradition, like films from France and Italy just after World War II. The idea is just to show things as they are. I also suspect it is criticism of military occupation of foreign lands, but that may just be what I want to think. Someone with more knowledge of Russian-Chechen relations might see something different. I suspect an American audience would end up thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sure it would be a provocative film to show for a discussion group.

Alexandra. Cinema Guild, 2009. ISBN 9780781512923

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