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Babushka Plays Surrogate Mother Russia

Alexandra (2007)

Cinema Guild

"Alexandra" takes place in Grozny, capital of the Republic of Chechnya, whose fight for independence from Russian rule led to it being carpet-bombed into near submission in the 1990s at a cost of more than 80,000 lives. The film centers on a Russian army camp in the present day where young soldiers nervously await their next clash with separatist forces. The central figure in the story wears no uniform, however. She is Alexandra, an 80-year-old woman, seemingly as grand and enigmatic as her name suggests.

The old woman is played by Galina Vishnevskaya, the international opera star whose own back story of expulsion from the Soviet Union adds gravitas to her presence here. The director Alexander Sokurov apparently waited a lifetime to work with Ms. Vishnevskaya, and his patience is well rewarded by a subtle and noble performance from the grande dame.

The first time we see Alexandra, she is boarding an armored train in the company of comparatively baby-faced troops. She pulls a basket behind her as though she were merely popping down the shops. In reality, she is on her way to the khaki-and-dust world of an army base where her 27-year-old grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) serves as a captain. Alexandra resembles a sepulcher of flesh and blood in which is entombed decades of life and loss. In contrast, the young boys who travel with her seem to have barely been touched by experience.

Upon arrival, Alexandra is met with slight bemusement by the troops. She ambles around the base complaining about the hundred-degree heat, the cramped conditions and the poor repair of her grandson’s uniform. Gradually, the men start to warm to her presence, especially after she feeds them meat pies and fearlessly goes to the local market to buy them cigarettes. Were they to visit the market themselves, the soldiers would face considerable hostility whereas the locals take to Alexandra with ease. Meanwhile, her grandson takes her on a tour of the encampment showing her inside an armored car and allowing her to hold a gun. “It’s so easy,” she mutters as she slips her gnarled finger around the trigger and slowly squeezes.

Mr. Sokurov does not use Alexandra as a tool of whimsical pathos but as an observer through whom he can relay a difficult scenario to the audience. It is a similar device to the one he employed in his masterful film "Russian Ark," where the character of the Marquis de Custine guided us around the Hermitage Museum and 200 years of Russian history. Whereas the Marquis remained emotionally detached, Alexandra cannot help but become involved with her surroundings. Her relative neutrality and the respect naturally afforded to someone of her age enables her to charm the locals. She claims that she has “stopped living for others,” but she cannot help but be kind when faced with emotional pain.

One local woman takes Alexandra to her home, a building so damaged by the fighting that its exterior appears to be slowly peeling away like old wallpaper. Later, the woman’s son escorts Alexandra back to the base, asking her if she can do anything to stop the conflict. To the boy she represents the human face of an oppressive empire but she too is powerless. “If only it were that simple,” she tells him regretfully.

"Alexandra" is not simply an anti-war film. It is a movie stylistically adverse to the bombastic approach of directors such as Oliver Stone. There are no shots of young men being torn apart by bullets while a soundtrack of sweeping strings cries out in lament. In fact, there are no scenes of combat at all, other than shots of a conflagration of light and smoke in the distance.

The film is no less powerful for its uneventful nature. The tragedy here is of the lives yet to be lost and the specter of death that casts a pall over proceedings. By the time she leaves the base, Alexandra has come to mean more to the soldiers than just a passing visitor. She is the hearth and home they left behind, the embodiment of Mother Russia without the winter chill. Alexandra leaves in silence but the mournful looks the soldiers give her speak volumes.

By shooting on location in Grozny and putting himself at risk in doing so, Mr. Sokurov gives added poignancy to an already moving scenario. Recent events in Georgia will only strengthen the film’s humanist message and remind us that that, in the eternal conflicts of history, it is the innocent and the helpless who suffer most.


Opens on March 26 in New York and on Sept. 26 in Britain.

Written (in Russian, with English subtitles) and directed by Alexander Sokurov; director of photography, Alexander Burov; edited by Sergei Ivanov; music by Andrei Sigle; produced by Mr. Sigle; released by Cinema Guild (United States) and Artificial Eye (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.

WITH: Galina Vishnevskaya (Alexandra Nikolaevna) and Vasily Shevtsov (Denis).


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