In “Russian Ark,” Alexander Sokurov used the cinematic flourishes of a magnificent setting and an army of handsomely coifed, costumed and bejeweled extras—along with a famously hyper-extended tracking shot that lasted the entire film—to paint an eye-popping vision of his country’s imperial history through a tour of the Hermitage museum. In this new effort the style is spare, the locale dusty and drab and the characters solemn and downcast. That’s entirely appropriate to a film dealing with a far less splendid part of Russia’s history (and its present)—the ongoing war in Chechnya—as a commentary on the horror of war in general.
Sokurov tells his very simple but wrenching story—or, perhaps more accurately given that the narrative is so slight, relays his impression—through the figure of Alexandra Nikolaevna, an aged Russian woman played by octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, the legendary operatic soprano now gray-haired and elderly but still as imposing as she was on the Bolshoi stage. She’s traveled to a base outside Grozny to visit the grandson she’s not seen in seven years, Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), a captain leading a troupe of young soldiers in the seemingly endless campaign against separatist rebels.
The film depicts her arrival, the time she spends there, and her departure, portraying the different episodes with a striking mixture of brutal realism and almost dreamlike reverie. We watch Alexandra, a no-nonsense woman without illusions who can be brusque as well as sympathetic, as she questions her grandson about such mundane matters as getting married and is given a tour of the base by him and a young private he assigns to look after her while he goes off on an unspecified patrol. In his absence she also takes off for the local market, where she encounters some hostility but also hospitality from Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a former teacher living in a tiny flat in a bombed-out building, who has her escorted back to camp by a young neighbor with whom the Russian woman can discuss, inconclusively, the rationale behind the conflict. Back at the base, she’s looked upon by soldiers who’ve lost all contact with ordinary life almost like an alien being until her grandson abruptly informs her that he’s been assigned a longer mission and she has to catch the train back to Russia. Malika accompanies her to the station, leading to a final scene in which the women commiserate over the waste that war has brought on them and the men they love.
But the picture doesn’t descend into sentimental bathos. The connections that Sokurov draws between people here are powerful in their simplicity and totally free of melodramatic mawkishness. At the same time, however, his technique isn’t a documentary one: there’s a strange, near-hallucinatory feel to many of the scenes, marked as they are by pregnant pauses and long stares within the context of a realism heightened by cinematographer Alexander Burov’s compositions, which combine images drained of most color (leaving a pale russet aftertaste) with an almost luminous intensity. The strains of Andrei Sigle’s mournful music add to their impact.
“Alexandra” is one of those pure films that’s devoid of excess and overstatement, and its combination of directness and artistry—characteristics shared by Vishnevskaya’s performance—will test the patience of modern viewers accustomed to empty energy and obvious messages. But for those willing to give themselves over to its style and tempo, Sokurov’s picture will represent a simple but searing statement about what the war in Chechnya has done to a Russian generation, but also the effect all war has on our human impulses.
And it’s entirely appropriate that he should have chosen Vishnevskaya as the figure through which his vision is filtered. In an earlier stage of her career, in 1962, she was the Russian soprano featured, along with an English tenor and a German baritone, as soloist in the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral—another powerful piece dealing with the futility of conflict. To have participated in two such extraordinary works with similar themes separated by nearly a half-century brings a remarkable symmetry to her career.