Nobody’s perfect, but how we managed to sleep on Alexandra, the new film from Aleksandr Sokurov that’s currently playing at the Film Forum following last fall's hometown premiere at the New York Film Festival is a true mystery. Sokurov certainly has his detractors (Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev famously mocked him in his 1992 film Kairat), but last count found them few and far between here at RS. The man’s prolific, which makes his ever-widening oeuvre somewhat hard to get a handle on, especially when many of his crucial works are largely unavailable (2005’s The Sun being a notable example). His nineties especially saw a veritable stream of long-format docs, narrative features, and television commissions, most of which haven’t seen the light of day in the States, making it all the more difficult to place this restlessly idiosyncratic filmmaker.
If not for the more abstract, elliptical Father and Son, the trajectory from Russian Ark through The Sun and now onto the most “conventional” of his films I’ve seen, Alexandra, is one of furthering coherence and eschewal of the kinds of narrative games that made earlier works like Stone and Whispering Pages dauntingly impenetrable (if hugely seductive) experiences. Conventional, but Alexandra is definitely Sokurov from end to end. Most of the attention paid his aesthetic spends a great deal of time discussing the lushness of the director’s images, which are generally crafted with an eye towards achieving an overall look and feel via a cadre of handmade lenses, post-processing, and warped shooting angles. Alexandra’s burnished sepia photography feels as though it's constantly struggling for air against a malignant oppressive darkness—an apt metaphor for the film’s look at life during wartime. Less noted is his use of sound: hushed dialogue disconnected from the images, the constant interruptions of super-crisp foley work pushed right to the front of the mix, and familiar classical pieces buried off on the background somewhere all prove effective in conveying the constant nervous disorientation of an isolated base camp. Sokourov’s crafted a body of work that embodies a very specific visual and aural sensibility unique in contemporary cinema, and when one examines the interplay between his documentary and fiction films, unique from his oft-cited predecessor Tarkovsky as well.
But it’s only in recent years, and perhaps only truly with his last two films, that he’s built characters as fully formed as his aesthetic. Issei Ogata’s Hirohito in The Sun was a notably marked improvement over Leonid Mozgovoy’s Hitler in Moloch (more a fault of the film than the actor), because Sokurov’s stepped his, at times, overbearing technique back a bit and entered into a seemingly more collaborative relationship with his performers. Existing in that ever-fascinating genre of speculative war fiction (in which the terrain is unnamed and the enemy unknown and unseen) with Bruno Dumont’s similarly worried Flandres, Alexandra feels almost as though Sokurov decided to venture back to the territory of his terrific epic documentary Spiritual Voices to re-interrogate the life of a solider on more narrative terms by inserting an avatar, here in the form of indomitable Russin babushka Galina Vishnevskaya in the titular role. Vishnevskaya’s performance covers all the shades of dour determination (many more than you’d imagine) as she stalks her grandson’s compound during a brief visit. It’s tempting to make Alexandra out as some sort of allegory for a “Mother Russia” lost amidst the masculine drone of constant warfare, but the portrait of this loving grandmother is altogether smaller and more expansive than that kind of simple reading. Giving what's sure to be one of the great performances of the year that will go wholly unnoticed (pesky subtitles), Vishnevskaya’s a wonder to behold.
Alexandra only has two days left in New York, but check the website of upstart distributor Cinema Guild for upcoming dates in their fairly aggressive nationwide release…