August 8, 2008

No Country for Old Women


No country for old women

Craig Smith I The New Mexican

Alexandra, gorgeously sad and eminently Russian film, not rated, in Russian with subtitles, The Screen, 473-6494, 4 chiles

Nothing much happens in this 92-minute 2007 film by Alexander Sokurov, and everything happens. It is one of the most effortless artistic achievements I can recall, as well as being a beautifully conceived, directed, and acted piece of cinema. I would be surprised if its slow-moving, bleak grandeur doesn't bring tears to your eyes. Nothing keeps a sophisticate choking back sorrow as much as pure and simple communication, does it?

The concept doesn't appear very promising at first look.

A rather grouchy Russian grandma named Alexandra Nicolaevna (opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya) goes to Grozny in Chechnya to visit her 27-year-old grandson, Denis (the ardent, inward-looking Vasily Shevtsov), a captain in the Russian occupying forces. During her short stay, she wanders around the camp, talks to the innocent- looking soldiers, baffles the young commander, and upsets military discipline and protocol in the process.

She also visits a nearby section of Grozny, where she and a Chechnyan vendor named Malika (Raisa Gichaeva) express the eternal bond that women share: the resigned bewilderment over how men can wreak war over and over, ripping apart lives, teaching the young despair, and leaving women to repopulate the earth so more war can take place. When, after three days, her grandson has to go out on a five-day patrol, she quietly leaves, presumably on the same armored train that brought her. Finis, and fade-out.

Even I, not a movie maven, knew enough about Sokurov and his amazing work in the 2002 film Russian Ark to expect something special, but I didn't count on anything as special as this. Using existing trains, tanks, a military camp, and the dry plains and skies that surround Chechnya's capital -- in a word, being very undirectorly -- he and his designers have made inimitable, simple magic. The entire movie is shot in the dusty browns, yellows, grays, and greens of the surroundings; there's nary a hint of color save in peoples' eyes, the white teeth of the soldiers when they smile at Alexandra, and an occasional glance of brighter but still dull cloth or packages in the Grozny marketplace.

The point of view is third-person omniscient, but at times, we feel we're watching passing soldiers or trucks through Alexandra's steady eyes. The music, by Andrey Siegle, is derivative but thoughtfully written and makes a telling impact, especially since there is so little dialogue. It may all be set in a specified land, but it's also Everytime and Everyplace.

Vishnevskaya, widow of cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), is simply unbelievable

as the dumpy yet imperious Alexandra. This is her first straight acting role --

she made a few operatic films during

her career -- and she plays it to the

hilt, with compelling theatrical concentration and easy command of the big-screen medium. I wouldn't be surprised if she had as much input on her character as Sokurov did.

Alexandra speaks little, observes carefully, and isn't the kind of lady you'd want to annoy. The soldiers, some still barely able to shave and obviously lonely and frightened within their military shell and structure, look at and respond to her as a man who finds cool water in the desert would. At one point, two young night sentries practically juggle their weapons for her entertainment and then fall with famished appetites on the meat pies she gives them. At another point, the commander lets his hand brush against hers as they walk, mutely seeking comfort and support in just a momentary touch.

She's no pushover, though. She moans, she groans, she goes oy, oy, oy -- not a surprise, given how often she has to hoist her ample frame into a tank or onto a train. When she finds Denis sleeping in the next bed in her tent, she throws herself rapturously into his arms and then grouses like any tough old girl who has to keep her boy up to the mark: "Why are you all dirty? Just look at you!" When he lets her examine an unloaded rifle, she aims and sights it, pulls the trigger with a suddenly cold and vengeful look, and then sighs, "It's so easy."

In one scene that should be hooey but is full of aching joy, Denis carries her across the dusty compound back to the tent they're sharing, the pair of them laughing like loonies from pure pleasure at being together. Later he unwinds, brushes, and braids her hair in a sequence of heartbreaking intensity suffused by quiet happiness.

The scenes with Gichaeva as Malika the vendor are equally compelling. As the sad Malika comments to her new friend, "Men can be enemies, but we're like sisters, straightaway at home." Yes, if only we could all be at home with one another, how wonderful it could be ... but until then, the Alexandras of the world will keep visiting their Denises, and blood and tears will continue to flow.

Also playing at The Screen: Sokurov's touching 2006 biopic Elegy of Life is a tribute to Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, with their 50th-wedding-anniversary celebration as a pivot point. It examines not only their glory years but also what they suffered under the Soviet regime as both artists and friends of people like Solzhenitsyn and Shostakovich.

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