Russian director Alexander Sokurov brings a political edge to the intra-family dynamics of his somber MOTHER AND SON and enigmatic FATHER AND SON with this relatively straightforward tale of a grandmother's trip to an embattled region of Russia for a visit with her grandson, an Army captain she hasn't seen in seven years. Although the locale is never mentioned, the circumstances strongly suggest her grandson is stationed in Chechnya, but it could be anywhere where wars are fought and armies occupy foreign lands.
After a lengthy, uncomfortable train ride in a box car filled with young soldiers, elderly Alexandra Nikolaevna (Galina Vishnevskaya) finally arrives at a dusty military base in the middle of some arid nowhere. She sees soldiers everywhere, and they're little more than rambunctious, overgrown boys, impossibly young men far from home who know little of life outside of the army. But the officer she's come to see -- her 27-year-old grandson, Denis (Vasily Shevstov) -- is nowhere to be found. Alexandra is shown to a private barracks and the following morning awakens to find Denis fast asleep on the cot next to her. He's obviously exhausted, but gives her a tour of the camp where soldiers carry old guns, drive reeking tanks that look like remnants from Afghanistan, and sit around waiting for lunch to be served. The heat, the smells and the tedium are unbearable. Denis answers Alexandra's barrage of questions as best he can, and that night, unable to sleep, she wanders across a mine field to the sentry box at the edge of the encampment, where she questions the guards on duty, offers them meat pies and eventually falls asleep. Her truancy panics Denis, but the following day she waves off the solider assigned to mind her and walks to the nearby town, a bombed-out shambles that was once a habitable city (Grozny, perhaps?). Alexandra finds her way to the local market where she promised to buy cigarettes and cookies for the soldiers back at the base, and encounters some of the contempt the young Caucasians hold for the occupying Slavs. But she also makes a friend in a retired schoolteacher (Raisa Gichaeva) who has managed to survive the siege on her city by selling cigarettes and who, Alexandra discovers, is not unlike herself.
Set to Andrei Sigle's stately, almost funereal score, the film moves slowly and steadily, but its "plot" is far more defined and, aside from some eerie day-for-night shooting and the golden rinse that suffuses the interior sequences, the film less stylized -- more "real" -- than much of Sokurov's previous work. Vishnevskaya, a famous soprano who, along with her late husband, the world-famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, were the subjects of Sokurov's documentary ELEGY OF A LIFE: ROSTROPOVICH, VISHNEVSKAYA, is a diva in the true sense of the word: She's a commanding presence who brings an genuine gravitas and the unmistakable weight of Russian history to her portrayal of an elderly woman who has seen war before and knows exactly what fate holds in store for many of those baby-faced boys she encounters in the camp. But if she's Mother Russia, Alexandra isn't immune from the contradictions and prejudices that continue to enflame crises like Chechnya: She's convinced Caucasian brutality is bred in the bones. Never the most optimistic of poets, Sokurov does suggest the possibility of dialogue on the individual level, and the hope that by asking difficult questions of one another, these mortal enemies can find answers and reach an understanding everyone can live with. leave a comment --Ken Fox