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DRE #444020

Film Review


Aleksandr Sokurov, the director of Russian Ark, has just done a beautiful, lyric film about a grandmother's love for her grandson, in a most unlikely setting. Alexandra is traveling by armored troop train to see her grandson, a combat forces captain stationed at a remote forward base, presumably somewhere in Chechnya. The train, basically boxcars with guns, arrives at the first base, and she is put into an armored personnel carrier for the final leg to the forward base.  The soldiers are surprised, amused, and curious to see a much older, dumpy woman in a cheap print dress, and help her in and out of the train and the various vehicles, then take her to a tent so she can sleep after her grueling trip. The next morning she finds her grandson asleep. He is astonished and moved. And he shows her around this dump of a base; dusty, dirty, smelly, with crude tents and huts.  He has to leave for a mission, so she continues to explore, talk to the mostly young soldiers, and eventually walk into a neighboring town that clearly has seen severe fighting. She meets an older Chechen woman in the market place who befriends her, and takes her home for tea.  Her home is an apartment building with shelling damage and shrapnel scars. They each have grandsons fighting the other, yet have much in common, which is one of the points of the film. The Chechen woman has a young man walk Alexandra back to the base, although he clearly hates the Russians. She is admonished by the base commander, shrugs it off, and says goodbye to her grandson as he is about to leave for another mission.

It is hard to imagine any filmmaker constructing a beautiful film from this setting, yet most scenes have great beauty, often mixed with sadness.  No combat is shown, and we do not even see any wounded.  Yet is clear that there is a war.  Alexandra wanders through the entire base, talking to the soldiers, many of whom are homesick, filthy, and craving decent food. Some of the scenes are unforgettable, such as her wandering through densely packed armored vehicles as if in a dream, or watching soldiers clean their weapons. Perhaps the most moving scene shows the muscular captain, in his combat fatigues and undershirt, gently braiding his grandmother's hair, as he did when he was a child.  She tells her grandson that he must get married, and he replies by telling her he is poor and would not make much of a husband. All said with great affection, even his recollection of how harsh his grandfather was. Alexandra is tough, and undeterred by her journey and crude quarters, and loves these poor soldiers, who seem to her to be just young boys.  There is very little dialog but usually a low background of mournful music, often so soft as to be almost inaudible. And the film itself has dusty, washed out colors, even in the daytime.  It is as if life is seeping away.  Very few films have such humanity in their focus on the common man.  Sokurov ability to see beauty in common and sometimes grim settings is genius. Absolutely worth seeing this masterpiece of Russian filmmaking.  Just opened at Opera Plaza and probably will not screen for more than 2 or 3 weeks.

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