Monday, 29 October 2007

Alexandra (2007, France/Russia, Alexander Sokurov)

Sokurov's new film begins with the eponymous woman (Galina Vishnevskaya) alighting a bus, then boarding an unnamed train, which is heading to an army camp in an unnamed region, though we imagine this to be Chechnya. Given the mutual enmity and contempt felt between Russians and Chechens, how has Sokurov managed to create such a dreamlike and striking film about their relationship - by concentrating on the human angle of course.

Alexandra is visiting her grandson, Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), who she hasn't seen for seven years. He's now running a platoon, but feels no pride in his work, and constantly thinks of the atrocities he's seen. Sokurov also suggests that if the Russian army is at war with the Chechens, then they're going to struggle with the poor machinery and weapons, the inexperienced teenage soldiers doing the fighting, and the low pride and morale that makes each soldier question his patriotic duty, accentuated by the lateness of salaries being paid. Neither do the soldiers express any contempt for their enemies. Sokurov wisely does not show any of the war being fought; it's very much a representation of non-active army life, where very little takes place.

The humanity angle is further played out by Alexandra acting as a bridge between the army and the Chechen community. She visits local markets, buys goods for the soldiers, and befriends the locals who are more than generous. The region may be bombed out and decimated, but this war hasn't been able to destroy the basic decency and goodness of these civilian people. In whose name is this war being fought? The leaders would say for the people, but these people want peace and a chance to co-exist. The soldiers are shown as decent men, instructed by Moscow to wage a war they don't believe in.

A lack of action and narrative might put some off Alexandra, though it's a moving account of living through war and having to fight. There's almost a hallucinatory quality to it, and the performances, especially by Vishnevskaya are very good. Sokurov does not give the official account of the Chechen conflict that Putin would like to have us believe; it's a tale of simple peace and humanity, and all the more effective for being so.

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