Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Oct 04, 2007 9:22 am 
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Another deep meditation from the Russian master

Shot in and around Grozny in a characteristic lightened brownish monochrome by cinematographer Alexander Burov (of Father and Son), this new addition to the Russian's studies of family relationships uses the spectacle of a powerful old woman (Galina Vishnevskaya,) visiting her grandson at an army camp near the Chechnan front as an opportunity to ponder youth and age, family hierarchies, and the motivations and aftereffects of war.

These are themes that emerge, but Sokurov's hypnotic intensity of focus keeps the action specific. There are no great events. The film depicts soldiers at the front during a long war, but there are no shots fired, no corpses, no violence among the soldiers. Alexandra Nikolaevich (her name parallels the director's) has a will of her own. Her manner is commanding but not aggressive; there is no preening about her, only a quiet dignity. She can't sleep, and wanders around on her own, casting off minders, talking to her grandson, to the sometimes ridiculously young soldiers. At first she gets into a tank. She handles and pulls the trigger of a kalashnikov her grandson shows her. She is bothered by the smells: the place is 100 degrees in the daytime. It seems Alexandra is in a place where one can walk back and forth between "enemies," and the next day she goes outside the camp to a nearby market where Chechnans sell to the soldiers. A woman who speaks good Russian (she says she was a schoolteacher) invites Alexandra to her apartment (all the buildings are battered: it could be Bosnia; it could be Beirut) and gives her tea. A young Caucasian man who takes her back to the checkpoint says, "why don't you let us be free?" "If only it was that simple," she answers.

Sokurov's last film was about the great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, this same Vishnevskaya, a legendary opera singer. It was Rostropovich who persuaded Sokurov to work in opera (on a production of Boris Godunov). This new film was entirely inspired by Visnevskaya.

"[Alexandra]," Sokurov has said in an interview, "is a film about the ability of people to understand each other, about all that is best in a person. It is about people and the fact that the main thing for people is other people and that there are no greater values than kindness, understanding and human warmth. As long as a person lives, there is always a chance to correct mistakes and become a better person."

The film moves slowly and ends when Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), the grandson, a captain, and a good soldier, has to go off on a five-day mission, and she's taken back to the train to return home.

The power of Alexandra grows out of its basic setup: Vishnevskaya's dignity and authority are a match for a whole army camp. She is, of course, in a sense Mother Russia, and these are her children. Sokurov protests that this film is in no sense political, and I think we should respect that intention and not read pro-Russian or anti-war or other political or occasional messages into it. In the same way, The Sun is hardly a statement about Japan's monarchy or about World War II. Sokurov, a deliberately difficult and independent auteur capable of masterpieces, asks his viewer to observe and ponder, not to draw quick conclusions. It's true; sometimes his soul is so big we float around in his films a little lost. But not with Alexandra, with her sore legs, her shawl, and her long plaited hair. Her feet are on the ground. Alexandra is calming and sobering, and gives hope.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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