Sokourov’s Alexandria: A war film without war

By Andrew McCathie


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Cannes : Despite the bloody conflicts grinding on in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, war has not featured prominently at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Even Russian director Alexander Sokurov's "Alexandria" – about the desolation, despair and brutality of the Chechen War and which premiered at the film festival Thursday – stepped back from any military action.

Largely set in the stifling heat of a Russian military base, Alexandria tells the story of a weary grandmother played by legendary Russian opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya. Nearing the end of her life she visits her officer grandson on the war front.

Alexandria is unimpressed by Moscow's plans for crushing the Chechen rebels and keeping its population firmly in hand. "I am sick of this military pride," she says at one point. "Strength does not come through weapons."

The military base leaves her cold. "It's terrible," she tells her grandson as he shows her the inside of a tank.

But apart from the odd helicopter flying over, or the drudgery of life on a military base, this is a war movie without a war.

There are no explosions or combat scenes and no enemy, except a largely hostile local population, which could be taken as a message for military occupiers around the world including Iraq.

"War is always a terrible thing," said Sokurov, whose filmmaking career spans 30 years. "In this film about war there is no war," he said in a statement. Sokurov could not attend Thursday's premiere due to illness.

"The heroine could be an American woman who has come to see her grandson in Iraq, or say an English woman who has gone to see her grandson in Afghanistan," said Sokurov, whose career spans the Soviet Union, the drive to reform and the forces unleashed by the implosion of communism.

Married to the celebrated Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya also has a story to tell. She left the Soviet Union in 1974. She and her husband's citizenship were only restored seven years ago.

Those involved in making Alexandria were well aware of the tensions and dangers of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya with the movie filmed near Grozny.

"I had to go there: There is real air, real people, real tension only there," said Sokurov, who was born in 1951. "After all there were constant explosions, attacks, the roads are mined."

So real was the threat, Vishnevskaya lived in a bunker and on several occasions they could only film for seven minutes at a time.

Only last year, Ken Loach's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley", about civil war in Ireland but with a wider message about other conflicts, won Cannes' coveted Palme d'Or (Golden Palm).

There have been war-themed movies screened this year in sections in Cannes other than the main competition.

These include a movie about the horrors of the war in Rwanda as well as a marathon seven-part series about how the catastrophe of war touches the lives of ordinary people.

But in 2007, war, in particular in Iraq, seems notable by its absence in the movies that have been competing for the Palme d'Or.

One of the few references to Iraq was in US director Gus van Sant's "Paranoid Park", a coming of age film about a young skateboarder, where the lack of interest in the Iraq war is used to show a disengaged modern American youth.