Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I've just watched a film I liked very much, "Alexandra" filmed in Chechnya in 2006 by Director Alexander Sokurov. It's the story of an old woman who leaves her home in St. Petersburg and travels to Chechnya-at war with Russia, invaded by them-to visit her grandson who is part of the occupying Russian army. I didn't realize the searing political implications of this film until I watched the press conference with the director and leading actress after seeing the movie. "Alexandra" is much more controversial, indeed politically loaded than I even now realize-I'm just responding to the powerful imagery and the simplicity of the story.

The film stars Galina Vishnevskaya. She is the widow of the Russian cellist conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. For many yeas, Vishnevskaya ("Galina Pavlova") was the leading soprano of the Bolshoi Opera-the most famous of all Russian singers since the 1950s. I recall her concerts in Boston of all Russian music, with Rostropovich at the piano-shortly after the couple was expelled from Russia in the 1970s for sheltering Solzhenitsyn. Vishnevskaya was a tall, slim, stunning dark haired woman. People play at being a diva. She WAS. Not in "Alexandra". She's a frumpy, dowdy old lady, moving slowly and achingly through the desert heat-reprimanding her grandson for a dirty uniform but taking remaining unimpressed by the privations around her and the military hierarchy. At the press conference the director said, "I warned Galina Pavlova that the conditions of making this film in Chechnya, in the 120 degree heat would be terrible, and she told me that she had survived the blockade of Leningrad in the 1940s. She could survive this."

Alexandra is a film of understatement that finds beauty in a desolate physical setting. The heart of the film is when an old Chechnyan woman in the market place clucks over Alexandra's exhaustion, takes her home and makes her a cup of tea. Its that simple and that moving. I had heard about this move and I had seen stills of the imperious and stunning Vishnevskaya playing a lady her own age but from a very different walk of life. In the distance, one in a great while you hear a woman singing but it is indistinct-Vishnevskaya is not necessarily the leading character. There is on one leading character. You pay attention to the soldiers, the elderly, the kids, the desert, the tanks, the guns and futility and uselessness of it all. But when I think of Vishnevskaya as Tosca or Tatiana I will add the elderly Alexandra to my list of unforgettable portraits, and this one is without music.