Alexandra Nikolaevna (opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, one of the subjects of director Aleksandr Sokurov‘s 2006 documentary "Elegy of a Life: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya") travels to Chechnya to visit her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) at his army base in "Alexandra." It’s a long journey by army trains and transports intended for soldiers, not elderly women, but Alexandra is unfussy and sometimes just gruff, and the soldiers, initially bewildered by her presence, accommodate her as they would any of their own relatives. At the base, which Sokurov in an otherwise restrained turn shoots through filters to shift it through a progressive series of grim monochromes, she’s shown to her accommodations, and when she wakes in the morning, her grandson is asleep in the room with her.
Alexandra becomes, as the film progresses, a kind of brusquely investigative Mother Russia embodiment, wandering the camp and speaking to the soldiers, bickering with the commander, buying cigarettes at the nearby market for the men on watch, befriending a local woman and being told by the boy who walks her back "I know its not up to you, but give us our freedom. We’re tired and we won’t last forever." It’s a little clumsy and unsatisfying, as is the film’s divide between unthinking young men and weary, wise women. But the scenes before, between Alexandra and her grandson, are quiet marvels of rueful familial adoration, with Denis, a career soldier, proudly showing off his men and tank while Alexandra gently chides his choices in life. She hasn’t seen him in years and they don’t have much time together, so both tread as carefully as they can around fundamental disagreements that nevertheless rise to the surface. Their joy in each other’s company still makes for scenes so tender they’re almost difficult to watch, most memorably one in which Denis scoops his delighted grandmother up and carries her like a bride through the camp so that she can rest.
"Alexandra" screened October 4 and 6 and will receive an eventual theatrical release from The Cinema Guild in 2008.