By Ray Bennett
CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - The value of a beautiful orchestral score in a movie is made clear in Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s “Alexandra,” an austere glimpse of life in wartorn Chechnya. Andrei Sigle, who produced the film, also composed the music, and its sweeping warmth carries something of the soul of mother Russia to that bleak and torrid landscape.
The film offers a sympathetic view of independence-seeking Chechnya, where 50,000 civilians and 6,000 Russian soldiers lost their lives in the war of 1994. But it also is kind to the youthful soldiers who police the region where strife exists. The picture should do well on the festival circuit and will be embraced in art houses.
Cinematographer Alexander Burov shoots with the colour washed out, and Sokurov frames his shots of weary soldiers and their tanks and guns in classic form. They capture the noble features of Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role of an old woman visiting her grandson, a first-class officer who has been serving in the perilous area for seven years.
Sparse dialogue and a reluctance to impart information proves daunting at first, but the film gets deeper as Alexandra’s brief encounters with officers and men reveal their isolation and fear. Grumpy but doughty, she creakily clambers onto railway carriages and military vehicles in the 100-degree heat to spend a little time with the grandson she adores.
Their conversations gradually reveal old family tensions and resentments, but his stalwart devotion to duty and demonstrable ability as a soldier don’t completely mask the affection that lies beneath. Sokurov’s tale takes on added dimension when Alexandra leaves the military camp to visit the nearby town, where she intends to buy cigarettes and cookies for the poor young men in uniform. Spurned by some locals, she is befriended by Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a stall holder who takes her to her humble dwelling to rest. “Men can be enemies, but we are sisters right away,” Malika says.
Not a shot is fired in the film, but the sense grows of a great tragedy unfolding that no one is able to do anything about. Vishnevskaya is superb as the plucky old woman whose eyes convey the sadness of everything she sees but who has the gumption to insist to the Chechen woman that she must come to visit her. Vasily Shevtsov captures the tough officer’s masculine solitude that still allows him to tenderly braid his grandmother’s hair.
Sigle’s music, played by the Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, features symphonic waves and gentle solos on piano and cello. Subtle for the most part, it sweeps in where necessary and goes a long way to inform the picture’s melancholy and moving sensibility.
Alexandra: Galina Vishnevskaya
Denis: Vasily Shevtsov
Malika: Raisa Gichaeva
Director-screenwriter: Alexander Sokurov; Producer-music: Andrei Sigle; Executive producer: Dmitri Gerbachevsky; Director of photography: Alexander Burov; Production designer: Dmitri Malich-Konkov; Costume designer: Lidiya Kryukova; Editor: Sergei Ivanov; Co-producer: Laurent Danielou.