Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings.
Sokurov, who has more than once attempted to document the Russian soul, may be a visionary, but his eponymous protagonist is resolutely down-to-earth. An instant anomaly, Alexandra clambers out from a transport train into a dusty station, presumably at some point during the second Chechen war. Stern and stolid, when not sighing with annoyance, the old lady is surrounded by Russian troops and a swirl of whispers, laughs, and faint melody. Atmosphere is everything. (And, of course, the filmmaking is masterful: Alexandra is crisply shot and impeccably framed, less impressionistic than earlier Sokurov films, with an audio tapestry as densely woven as any by David Lynch or Gus Van Sant.)
Alexandra has come to see her grandson, an army captain in his late 20s. She's escorted to the base, at one point riding in a tank. The soldiers love her. It's as if the resolute babushka from the famous World War II poster, "The Motherland-Mother Calls," had suddenly materialized among them. Alexandra's fierce, blunt busybody is almost a monument — as Vishnevskaya herself is considered a national treasure. Weary and indomitable, she has no sense of her own incongruity; she's too busy studying the faces of the troops around her. (She loves them as well.) The next morning, Alexandra wakes up in her grandson's tent, finds him there, and laughs for joy.
The son of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov spent his childhood moving from base to base, and there's a mascot quality to Alexandra as she makes her tour of inspection. The movie has no shortage of incident, but it's less a narrative than a situation: The emphasis is on boredom and routine. Alexandra peers in on shirtless soldiers at their ablutions; she's handed a Kalashnikov to examine (which she does with aplomb). Blunt and plainspoken, she responds to the smells, the heat, and the discomfort: "My God, it's stifling." Totally unintimidated in her wanderings, the old lady scolds one soldier for playing with his weapon; asked for food by another, she rummages in her capacious bag and pulls out a homemade meat pie. Abruptly, Sokurov cuts to a shockingly beautiful long shot of a flaming landscape.
Her grandson back out on patrol, Alexandra leaves the base on a mission of her own to procure sweets and cigarettes for the sentries. En route to town, she finds ample evidence of the war's destruction. The landscape is a wasteland, the city is rubble, and the marketplace is filled with sullen Chechens. Alexandra manages to engage the elderly women there, evoking an internationale of grandmothers in a scene that would have been far more sentimental were it not so predicated on the bone-weariness of old age. Now that she has the lay of the land, willful Alexandra has words with her grandson. She is not without certain anti-Chechen prejudices (kidnapping is "in their genes"), but she identifies with their plight. Moreover, she wants to know why he is engaged in this sterile occupation. Why hasn't he married? He tells her that family is even more oppressive than the army.
Sokurov may be unconscious of the unconscious but, in his movies, history typically dissolves into the psychosexual. His last meditation on the military, the wacky Father and Son, used the passionate filial relationship between an army officer and his teenage boy to celebrate the state as a near-fascist expression of masculine authority. Alexandra has more to do with patriotism as a tragic and irrational affection for a cranky motherland. Grandma and grandson reconcile in a scene of near-erotic fondness, complete with inscribed voyeur, in which he brushes and braids her coarse gray hair. The next morning, she leaves — having accomplished what exactly?
In her recent history of Russian war films, scholar Denise Youngblood notes that the half-dozen movies treating the Chechen conflict fall into two categories. There are the internationalist films like Sergei Bodrov's Prisoner of the Caucasus, which romanticize the conflict, casting the Chechens as oriental Others, and there are chauvinist films like Aleksei Balabanov's War, which sound a warning against encroaching barbarism. Alexandra is neither. The conflict is an existential condition; Sokurov's subject, in his own words, is "the eternal life of Russia. ... There is not a single word that could not have been sounded forty years ago." (Is Russia then defined as a nation forever under occupation?)
Unlike earlier filmmakers, Sokurov insisted on making the film on location in Chechnya. Let the earth and the air speak. His camera maneuvers to capture precise slivers of sunlight on the ground; the color is sun-bleached, the clouds of dust rise just so. The effect is fastidious, but too ethereal to be oppressive. Sokurov may not clarify the situation in Chechnya but, in chronicling Alexandra's trip to the front, he illuminates its reality.