Aleksandr Sokurov merges the focus of his trilogy of films on political power (such as The Sun) with those about the intensely chambered, loving intimacy between family members in Alexandra, a film about the eponymous grandmother (Galina Vishnevskaya) traveling to a Russian army base in contemporary Chechnya to visit her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov). The combination is an uneasy one; the insular, heartfelt and incredibly tactile familial relationships of films like Mother and Son here seem to slowly spread out like water expanding on a dry clothe as the distance in age and generation, in outlook, and in ideology between grandmother and grandson make the tottering Alexandra an open vessel of familial compassion and attention beyond just Denis but also for all Russian soldiers.
Appropriately, Sokurov for the most part restrains his baroque visual distortions and dreamy atmosphere, though Alexandra still seems to drift through the landscape of Chechnya in a kind of haze. The setting here being one of soldiers and not of leaders as in Moloch, Telets, and The Sun, the military aspect of Alexandra is not about power as much as it is of presence, or perhaps even existence—of soldiers, of their uniforms and their sweat, of their lonely, haggard and young faces, and, of course, of Alexandra’s exhausted, tireless searching. Like José Luis Guerín’s film In the City of Silvia, much of Sokurov’s film could be seen as structured around a solitary person’s ardent but unclear hunt through faces, visions, and sounds for something of great but unvoiced importance. For Alexandra, her joy at waking up after her first night in camp to the presence of her grandson seems to indicate that her search is over, but as their brief relationship develops in short dialogs and through the grandmother’s exploration of the camp and the nearby Chechen town, a discord between the two appears which explains Alexandra’s still unceasing activity, somehow vaguely unsatisfied by her grandson, and, through him, by the Russian intrusion into Chechnya and the abstract dissatisfaction of the soldiers.
Unfortunately it is this turn of events that leads the film down a road that becomes increasingly vague, sentimental, and unsatisfying. Alexandra’s first third is heartfelt, moving, and strange; it is before the grandmother’s hope has yet to be muddled and Sokurov comes closest to his previous style using unreal day-for-night shots, dusky interiors (including, in a strange scene and one of the film’s best, when Denis takes his grandmother inside an armored tank), and a camera that seems drawn almost unwillingly, or at least unconsciously, in search of the soldier’s faces. There are even very brief flashbacks, as if Alexandra is worried that she has missed someone or something by letting soldiers she has seen or met get away from her. But as the grandmother’s curiosity is drawn away from the soldiers and the camp and turns to the Chechen market outside and a few of its residents, and as she pushes Denis more and more about his current life, the film somehow takes on an indistinct generality. Despite the narrative’s move from Alexandra’s drifting tour of the military occupation of Chechnya to more specific, less impressionistic interaction with Denis about his life and state of mind, and a sequence where Alexandra befriends an elderly Chechen woman that is emblematic of how vague Sokurov is sketching this section of the film, Alexandra somehow loses its emotional might. The film had so beautifully evoked this tenor of decamped emotional ties, of a people cared for forever traveling away from home, by conflating the grandmother’s searching familial love with the isolated, forlorn faces of the soldiers, but the moment the film tries to explore its characters and what they think and feel, it becomes lost in a gently, caringly muddled blur.