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As one of the least discussed modern conflicts, it's not unsurprising that the Chechen War has rarely been covered on film, certainly not in such a profound and visceral manner as depicted in Aleksandra. Aleksander Sokurov, the visionary helmer of The Russian Ark, turns an ugly conflict into a moving and gentle experience.
The aging Aleksandra is granted a trip to visit her grandson, an officer in the Russian Chechen campaign, at his station post in the heart of Chechnya. She takes the train with other soldiers, and upon arrival is driven to the base in an armoured vehicle. There she waits for her grandson to return during the night. He arrives through the night as she sleeps, and in the morning takes her on a tour of the camp: showing her the vehicles, the tents, the guns. When he is away, Aleksandra curiously explores the base on her own, talking without intimidation with the other soldiers. She gives them meat pies, and the comforts of a mother figure in a world of testosterone, blood, and fear.
This film is one of sensations, of atmosphere. You feel the heat of the dry Chechen landscape (it appears to have been shot in and around Grozny). You feel the tension of hatreds engrained in the psyche of both the Russians and the Chechens. You feel the dirt and the grime of the Russian base, and its intimidating and archaic structure. It is a labyrinth of tents, wood, and barbed wire. It is a rightful character in itself. You feel the oddity of seeing an aged and soft bodied woman, looking as a saint among sinners in that craggy landscape.
The entire mood of the film is oddly affecting. Despite its gentle story, it expresses an unstated sense of menace. This is a troubled land, filled with unseen terror the undercurrents of tension are palpable. And yet, old Aleksandra shows no fear. Not in the face of the shockingly young Russian soldiers who try to disobey her to go here or there, only to end up following her commands. And not in the face of angry Chechens in the market, to where she goes off alone. Indeed, it is in that market that one of the most rewarding sections of the film takes place. Aleksandra, shunned by a young Chechen man because she is Russian, is welcomed by an older Chechen woman, much like herself. Among this woman and her friends, Aleksandra forms a bond that transcends hatred, and reaches towards nothing more than humanity and compassion.
Aleksandra is more than just a war film, or even a film about war. The only shot fired in the film is by Aleksandra herself an empty chamber in an AK-47, shown to her by her grandson. This is a film about human convictions, and inevitabilities. Why is she even here? The grandson's commanding officer asides that usually he brings girls to visit him, but this time he's oddly requested his grandmother. He knows it is inevitable that he will likely die in this war, just as she confides that her time is invariably near. But the film also makes it clear that not everything is doomed to inevitability. Hate does not have to be manifest. It is a product of unnecessary cruelty and unfairness.
Sokurov takes no obvious stance on either the side of the Chechens or the Russians, and so I will not invoke any clear reference here other than to simply point out that those with a working knowledge of the foundations for the ongoing conflict should have by now found it obvious who holds the majority of blame for this hell.
This is a small story, and a concept not unfamiliar. What heightens a simple parable into grandeur, though, is execution. Sokurov is a visionary, and his eye for visceral storytelling through sound and image to create the perfect mood is a marvellous example of what the art of film-making is all about. This film has the heart, the soul, and the wisdom necessary to reach that level of grandeur. This is a great and profound film.
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