Aleksandr Sokurov's anti-war drama Alexandra opens with a curious image and spends 90 minutes squeezing it for all it's worth. Galina Vishnevskaya plays a rounded, matronly old grandmother who hops a troop train to the Chechen front to visit her grandson Vasily Shevstov, an officer. On a dusty railroad car full of hardened young men and cold iron weaponry, Vishnevskaya's soft form and wizened face stand out, almost comically. But as Sokurov piles on the incongruity—like when Vishnevskaya unpacks jars of preserves and removes her paste jewelry amid cramped gray barracks—the quintessential Russian image of the babushka looks pointedly out of place. It's Sokurov's way of saying that whatever's going on in Chechnya, it doesn't fit who Russians really are.
But in spite of Sokurov's usual formal mastery—dispensed this time in audience-friendly short takes rather than punishingly long ones—the gist of Alexandra can be processed in pretty short order. Vishnevskaya roams the base in Chechnya, bemused by the arcane regulations, and appreciative of how happy the soldiers are to see a reminder of home. But her generally disapproving tone essentially says the same thing over and over: "This is no way for decent folk to live."
Which would be fine, if Sokurov weren't so clumsy about delivering the message. Vishnevskaya is constantly making little gruff, too-blunt asides about the animal nature of man, and how people are all the same deep down. In a purely visual sense, Alexandra is often stunning, especially in the way Sokurov lingers over the alien appearance of military machinery when it's in the process of being disassembled and cleaned. In one early scene, Shevstov lets Vishnevskaya into one of his tanks, which looks dank and cluttered—inhuman. But then Shevstov lets her hold an empty rifle and pull the trigger, and in case we were in danger of missing the point, Vishnevskaya mutters, "It's so easy." The contrast of a warm maternal figure and a remote army outpost is undeniably affecting. But when Vishnevskaya opens her mouth, she spoils the mood.