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"It's complicated for a soldier. Especially a Russian."
on 19 August 2015
“It’s complicated for a soldier. Especially a Russian.” So tells Denis, a captain in the Russian army, a professional who loves army life, to his grandmother who has visited his camp in the south during the Chechen campaign. Alexandra has gone to there to see him, but whilst there also talks to other soldiers, visits the adjacent makeshift market as well as the bombed town nearby. How can such a plot maintain interest for ninety minutes in yet another superb film by director Alexander Sokurov?
Well, it does for many reasons. Leave alone the technical aspects of superb camera framing and wonderful acting (especially by Alexandra, played by the late Galina Vishnevskaya, more famed for her work in the opera house), there are the messages to be gleaned from the context: the treatment of soldiers, the treatment and tensions of the local population, and the treatment by both of Alexandra herself. But probably the most important is the juxtaposition of a strong-willed but kindly – and wise – grandmother in the midst of a camp geared towards war. All the soldiers, despite their bravado, have mothers. And then there is consideration of the political message …
It’s all shot and acted in a natural manner. There is no grandstanding, although at one point Alexandra confronts the unit commander. Lamenting the war, she tells him, “You can destroy. But when will you learn to rebuild?” But instead of being a fount of wisdom, Alexandra has much to learn too.
In a perceptive review in ‘Sight & Sound’ Tony Rayns wrote how ‘Alexandra’ could just as easily have been titled ‘Grandmother and Grandson’, forming a third part of Sokurov’s series of films that explore close family relationships (‘Mother and Son’; ‘Father and Son’), “except that these characters [Alexandra and Denis] are far less ‘archetypal’ and far more interestingly flawed.” Nevertheless, all films do have the same wistful, romantic Tchaikvoskian soundtrack by Andrei Sigle.
There are two extras on my DVD. The first is a fifteen-minute interview with Sokurov. He says he wrote the script specifically with Vishnevskaya in mind: the film would not have been made otherwise. He says the film has a go at politicians generally for putting politics above human values. Unfortunately, the interview deals more with war generally than with the film. The second is an eight-minute interview with Sigle, who produced the film as well as composed the music. Here we learn that it was shot in Chechnya under difficult security conditions and that it touches a raw nerve in Russia.