As a babushka-clad grandmother who decides to pay her 27-year-old army-captain grandson an impromptu visit at the Chechen front in Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya is Mother Courage personified.
Vishnevskaya, a retired soprano in her native Russia, inhabits her character with an almost supernatural quality that erases the line between actress and role. It’s a remarkable feat, particularly since Sokurov has never been known as an actor’s director.
In fact, performances have traditionally been the least important component of any Sokurov film (see Sokurov’s surprise 2003 art-house hit Russian Ark if you need proof). More of a visual artist and poet than a master of dramaturgy, Sokurov is working in a more naturalistic key than usual here. For a director who seems to pride himself on deliberate opacity, Alexandra is both lucid and accessible, even for non-fans. After all, who doesn’t love a feisty granny with an iron will and a heart of gold?
The purpose of grandma Alexandra’s visit doesn’t become clear until late in the movie: She hopes to convince grandson Denis to come home with her because she doesn’t like living alone. But until broaching that impossible request, Alexandra endears herself to his fellow soldiers and the initially wary local villagers. One elderly Chechen woman confides that while the Russian soldiers may smell like men, they still look like boys. (Sokurov’s fetishization of the strapping young recruits’ bare torsos inevitably recalls Claire Denis’ deliriously homoerotic Melville adaptation, Beau Travail.)
Some critics have tried to draw parallels between America’s Iraq imbroglio and the Chechen conflict depicted in the film. Yet Alexandra is as apolitical as a movie ostensibly about war can be. A scene in which Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) braids his grandmother’s hair is so tender and inexplicably, hauntingly beautiful that the armored tanks and machine guns sitting just outside the frame seem to exist in a parallel dimension. When it’s finally time to pack up and go home, Alexandra assures her new friends that “my body has grown old, but my soul can live another lifetime.” Seeing Vishnevskaya strut her stuff, it’s easy to believe that she’ll live forever.
Alexandra, Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, 9:30 p.m. Friday, August 1 and 7 p.m., Saturday, August 2