In 2006, the British actress whose first appearance on film was in Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, and whose first moment of fame was as Sally Potter's Orlando, Tilda Swinton (now known as the Narnia witch), made this desperate plea at the San Francisco International Film Festival: "Can I be alone in my longing for inarticulacy, for a cinema that refuses to join all the dots? For an arrhythmia in gesture, for a dissonance in shape?... The figurative cinema's awkward and rather unsavory relationship with its fruity old aunt, the theater, to her vanities, her moues, her beautifully constructed and perennially eloquent speechifying, her cast-iron, corsetlike structures, her melodramatic texture, and her histrionic rhythms. How tiresome it is; it always has been. How studied. The idea of absolute articulacy, perfect timing, a vapid elegance of gesture, an unblinking, unthinking face. What a blessed waste of a good clear screen, a dark room, and the possibility of an unwatched profile, a tree, a hill, a donkey...."
Much of what Swinton longs for can be found in Alexandra, the latest film by the director of Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov. Here, the theatrical element of the film is subordinated to imperfect timing, graceless gestures, and things—a dress, a pool of gun oil, a bullet, a rusty rifle, black smoke, worn clothes, concrete rubble, dusty boots.
The movie's dots are, however, connected: A babushka visits her grandson at his army base in Chechnya. Though battle weary, the grandson is happy to see his grandmother. He shows her the camp, the inside of a tank, and the men below and above his rank. The babushka is confident, her face expresses a strong will, and her shapeless body is a mother-magnet to young, motherless soldiers. While her grandson is on patrol, she goes out of the camp for a walk. She visits a strange market, meets a Chechen grandmother, and is invited to her apartment for refreshments and a rest. The unification of the grandmothers is the center of a sequence that is directly political. When the babushka returns to the camp, guided by a Chechen boy, we reach the end of a sequence that clearly transmits the movie's antiwar message.
Those are Alexandra's connected dots. The movie also has a frame that concerns the movement of art. The babushka happens to be, in reality, one the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, Galina Vishnevskaya. She and her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich (an internationally recognized cellist), were not only close to the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich but also to the novelist who rose to fame during the post-Stalinist thaw, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The author's stay at Vishnevskaya/Rostropovich's dacha (country home) cost them their high position in the Soviet Union and resulted in a nearly two-decade-long exile in the West (1970s and 1980s). As the Berlin Wall fell, Rostropovich sat playing his cello next to it.
In sum, the babushka we see at the beginning of the film—riding a rattling train through the moonless night, being helped into a mean metal tank, dragging her banged-up roller bag toward the army base—is in fact a living ark of Russian art. It is art that is visiting the army, the young captain, the bomb-damaged city. It is art (and not a mother) that soldiers admire and can't stop looking at. But art is no stranger here, in the miserable land of war. "There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism," wrote Walter Benjamin. In Alexandra, art must confront this truth and be made sensitive to the suffering of humankind.
After the connected dots and the frame of art, we are left with lots of the magical stuff that Swinton longs to see in movies: "The long shot, the space between, the gaps, the pause... The occasionally dropped shoe off the heel, the jiggle to readjust, the occasionally cracked egg, the mess of milk spilled. [The] loss for words...." Because the acting plays a very small role in Alexandra, the cinema is free to flourish.