In the comedy Love And Death, Woody Allen finds himself conscripted into the Russian Army about to fight Napoleon’s invading French forces. While in basic training, a stern drill sergeant tries to explain the reality of things to the peasant soldiers who will soon shed their blood for Mother Russia.
Sergeant – “If they kill more Russians, they win. If we kill more Frenchmen, we win.”
Woody – “What do we win?”
This line always gets a laugh (and would be well worth asking anytime WE feel the need to go to war), so why did that question come to mind after seeing Alexander Sokurov’s breathtaking film Alexandra? I’ll come to that momentarily.
Alexandra is a film of deceptive simplicity. An older grandmother comes to a remote military base to visit her 27-year-old grand son who is a captain. While there, she is treated as an honored guest, almost like a beloved mascot and she gets to meet many different soldier boys as well as some of the locals who live in the destroyed towns around the base.
Described this way, it would be hard to justify to your friends why you want to see a film about an old Babushka groaning around a military base, always complaining about the heat for 95 minutes, but then you are not considering the surprises in store from the great Russian director Alexander Sokurov who has been described as a Russian David Lynch, but I think this is mistaken.
If you must pigeonhole Sokurov, he has more in common with Gus Van Sant in his experimental mode with films like Last Days, Elephant and the recent Paranoid Park. Like Van Sant, Sokurov’s films have seemingly straightforward narratives, but are then made brilliant by an unconventional way of telling the actual story as well as a utilizing unique ways of manipulating sound and image. What ultimately happens if you allow yourself to be seduced by the film, is the whole things becomes a allegorical examination of the Russian soul and why they often find themselves in no-win situations like Chechnya, which Alexandra is clearly about.
But there are many things that I, as an American may not appreciate fully. For example, the solemn type of poetic love that Russians have for their mothers that is imbued in everything from their literature to their music to their theater, (Americans loves their mothers too, but it is a bit different). I can’t fully understand the helpless feeling they have of being a “former” world power that finds itself bogged down in a country it could have once blown right off the map, but can now do nothing. (Don’t worry; America could get there yet if we don’t stop these Neo-Con morons with their selfish pursuits disguised as patriotism.)
Then there is the casting of the film. The soldiers are all well played by handsome young actors with sweet, youthful faces, but it is the solid presence of Galina Vishnevskaya as Alexandra that holds this film together. I have read she was a well-known opera singer in Russia and considered a national treasure, although I was not familiar with her before this film. Considering what Galina Vishnevskaya had to do, literally embody Mother Russia as a concept while never ever losing her humanity, her performance is wonderfully understated. It won’t happen, but if Daniel Day Lewis can get an Oscar for grossly over-playing an evil oilman in There Will Be Blood, I hope Galina Vishnevskaya can at least get an Oscar nomination for portraying the historical soul of a nation all the while making her human and understandable.
It is rare that films ever tackle things allegorically. That is usually reserved for the theatrics of the stage or the interior realms of the mind in a novel. Even if it were something that could be done, most Americans would not accept it. The American style of story telling is straightforward and blunt; allegory relies on symbolism, and a transubstantiation of ideas and concepts into dramatic characters and situations. To many people, this all feels like trickery and they remain closed off to it especially in the arts. Yet, crazily enough, they have no trouble accepting it every Sunday in church where Christians by the thousands believe that ordinary wine and bread turn into the Blood and Bone of Christ. It really doesn’t happen folks, (except symbolically) or that would make you cannibals. So if you can accept that kind of symbolic allegory and transmutation of concepts in a church, it requires only a little bit more imagination to accept it in a film. Please try. You don’t know what you’re missing.
Getting back to my opening citing of Love And Death and why Alexandra made me think of it, well, at the end of the film, as Alexandra is on her way back home, she looks at the passing Chechen countryside through the door of her train.
It is dry, hot, and pretty much a wasteland. Yet, this is the very land the Chechens are more than willing to die for and really, what possible use could it be for the Russians? I hope Alexandra is considering Woody Allen’s surprisingly simple, yet devastating question, after all the terror, all the horror and all the killing is over, “What do we win?”
It turns out the answer is rolling right past Alexandra’s eyes, outside the train door.