This new effort by Russian auteur Sokurov, an anti-war minimalist 'situation' - calling it a 'tale' would imply more attention to narrative than the film warrants - set and actually shot in the ruins of Grozny, in Chechnya, is very much in the humanist-formalist tradition of this immensely talented but sometimes difficult director. For once, however, there is more accent on the humanism than the formalism, unlike Bela Tarr's film in competition, The Man from London, which seems to prefer the reverse.
It's a slight film, more a series of perceptions than anything else, but it's eminently accessible and may bring more acolytes to the director's fan base. What it ultimately says about war is fairly conventional, however, thus keeping it out of the pantheon of Sokurov's greatest hits.
Alexandra (Vishnevskaya), the grandmother of an officer named Denis (Shevtsov), who is fighting in Chechnya, goes to visit him. During her visit, she has a lengthy discussion with her grandson about war and life and love, and encounters other Russian soldiers, some disaffected Chechen youth, and a few Chechen women whom she befriends.
As he has explained elsewhere, Sokurov believes that any depiction of combat only glorifies it, when the reality of war is always and only a horrible one.
Hence in this new film he has refused to show any battle scenes whatsoever. Yet the war is also always there by suggestion, in the presence at the very end, for example, of the armored carriers that rumble off toward the killing fields, or in a quick, random close-up, say, on some worn military gloves.
Many of Sokurov's typical formal techniques are present and well-used. Hence his colours are employed as a painter would, his shots moving easily from fully naturalistic bright colours to sepia to a completely drained-out, almost black-and-white palette, sometimes in the same scene.
The always somber classical music score sometimes seems to line up with the emotions being 'expressed' by the characters (which are rarely more than suggested), and at other times seems purposely overdone, almost in counterpoint to what's happening in the scene narratively.
There's also, at least in the beginning, that trademark, barely heard, separate score - in this case, vague opera singing, as if in homage to Vishnevskaya - that suggests an other reality, beyond what our eyes can see.
In this regard, the director thus fills the film with the seen and the heard - Alexandra, in addition, constantly mumbles to herself, never leaving the soundtrack empty for a second - while also making constant references in the dialogue, surely not by chance, to the smells that exist among these men in the staging area of a war zone.
The destruction of war is discussed more openly, though with extreme brevity, in the few scenes with the Chechen ladyfriends that Alexandra meets in the local market. They explain their situation simply: 'There are so many of you', and 'life is upside down here'. More direct comments come later when Alexandra asks her grandson, 'When will you learn to build, and not to destroy'' and when she explains to him that 'strength doesn't lie in weapons or in hands'.
Lovely and true sentiments indeed, but hardly new. Personal details are quickly mentioned in all these encounters, but never dwelt upon for more than a few seconds.
The humanist aspect of the film is carried largely by the camera's intense focus on the crusty, no-nonsense Alexandra. In real life, Vishnevskaya, who plays the role, was a famous opera singer in Russia and the wife of the late Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom she emigrated from the USSR in the 1970s.
Now in her early eighties, her face is still transcendently beautiful and leads easily toward the spirituality and otherworldliness that is often found in Sokurov's work. These close-ups are abetted by frequent close-ups on the nearly saintly-looking, even pretty young Russian soldiers, which will remind many viewers of the facial 'typage' employed by Eisenstein in The Battleship Potemkin.
Sokurov's signature homoeroticism (which he often denies) is also on view in the loving shots of naked military torsos, a la Claire Denis's Beau Travail.
Proline-Film, Rezo Productions