October 9, 2007
One of my favorite films from this year's festival is Aleksandr Sokurov's Alexandra, a spare, poetic, and understatedly affirming elegy on the spiritual and moral consequences of a corrosive, interminable war. At the heart and soul of the film is the stubborn and indomitable babushka, Alexandra, played by the famed Russian soprano and sprightly octogenarian (and wife of the late pre-eminent cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich), Galina Vishnevskaya, who, as the film begins, has curiously embarked on an ill advised, physically demanding journey of cramped boxcars, all terrain vehicles, and even battle tanks to arrive at a military outpost near a war torn Chechen village. Waking in her barracks "hotel" to the sight of her devoted, Denis (Vasili Shevtsov), a dashing and well respected officer in the Russian army who maintains a busy schedule with short deployments to insurgency hotspots, Alexandra soon grows weary of the inscrutable, yet highly regulated movements and seemingly arbitrary rules that define life within the camp (a frustration that is understatedly reflected in Alexandra's disorienting navigation through a maze of barracks) and undertakes her own journey to find a sense of normalcy in the most mundane of tasks - going to the local market - where she encounters and finds communion with an elderly Chechen refugee named Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a former teacher who, now in her twilight years, is forced to make a meager living selling sundries at a market stall under the sobering reality of an inhumane existence in the decimated, occupied village. Returning to the metaphoric landscapes of Spiritual Voices and Confession in their evocative images of quotidian ritual and the profound desolation that exists within the remote frontiers of a long forgotten war, Sokurov uses desaturated sepia tones, arid and barren landscapes, primitive living conditions, and battle-scarred architectures to create a metaphor for a wounded humanity struggling to survive against the madness of conditioned barbarity, where solidarity and a lasting peace are achieved, not in the systematic demoralization of a people, but in the fragile community of mundane, yet defiant, ennobled gestures.