Saturday, January 22, 2011

Truth in Grozny

Alexander Sokurov's simple but moving Russian film, Aleksandra, succeeds as a result of the strength of the leading actress, Galina Vishnevskay, who, according to a New York Times' film review, happens to be Rostropovich's wife. Galina Vishnevskay, a former opera star in her own right, joined her dissident husband in opposition to Soviet political and cultural policy and was eventually exiled for her troubles.

Vishnevskay plays a wizened grandmother who visits her officer grandson in Chechnya for ambiguous reasons. Sukorov is subtle enough to allow his leading lady to explore the war zone at her own pace, making human connections to her grandson, anonymous solders, and native Chechens, some of whom hang out listlessly outside of the Grozny military barracks, waiting for something that will surely never come.

The grandmother is strong, haughty, calm, and open to existential enlightenment if not already experienced it. Despite her age, she seems to have a capacity to fully engage everyone and everything she encounters. At one point, she picks up her son's automatic weapon and aims it, betraying not even a trace of diffidence or doubt about its deadly nature. At another point, she befriends Chechen women in the marketplace. Clearly, this is a woman with few illusions about life, a woman who is somehow "beyond good and evil," neither supportive of the war effort nor clearly opposed to it. Is her fatalism a result of her age? Does she hail from a military family? The film offers few answers. As the New York Times film review reminds us, we don't know why she has come to Chechnya. As a Russian, a woman, and an elderly person, she is an outsider in almost every respect. But her status as an outsider doesn't phase her. She is fearless, and elemental. This quality is demonstrated by her willingness to wait in trains or sit in dirt despite the efforts of the young soldiers to accomodate her.

In the end, Sokurov, director of the Russian Ark and many other films, has made a subtle film about a quintessentially Russian woman who fearlessly seeks the truth. While Sokurov doesn't attempt to explain the nature of that truth for his Russian viewers, he seems to be making the important point that this Russian truth can best be located in Grozny, Chechnya. And who can argue with that?

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