Sunday 15th March 5:00 PM


Known mainly in the West for his 96-minute one-take historical tableau Russian Ark (screened by KFC in November 2003) surely one of the oddest art-house hits of all time, Alexander Sokurov is widely viewed as Russia's most important living filmmaker. That fact might not help you much in trying to get a handle on his new Alexandra, a cryptic, prickly tale about an old woman who visits her grandson and his comrades in an isolated war zone, has a series of uncertain encounters and then goes home again.

This movie, so simple on its surface and so hard to figure out, is a pretty tough point of entry to Sokurov's work, though it's not like his other narrative features (The Sun, Father and Son, Mother and Son, Moloch, etc.)are such easy assignments either. The war in question seems to be Russia's campaign against rebels in Chechnya, and in fact Alexandra was shot there, under difficult and dangerous conditions. But everything about Alexandra's journey and the setting is deliberately ambiguous. The war could be almost anywhere, at almost any point in modern history -- or at least any point at which a quasi-imperial army finds itself lodged for years in hostile surroundings, and slipping into depravity and self-doubt.

To any Russian viewer, Sokurov's choice of a leading lady will be fraught with almost electrifying significance. Alexandra is played by 81-year-old Galina Vishnevskaya, probably the greatest operatic soprano in that nation's long musical history and, along with her husband, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, a figure long associated with artistic resistance to the Soviet regime. Although she's used to performing, Vishnevskaya isn't a film actress, and most of the other parts -- her officer grandson, his fellow soldiers, a Chechen woman who befriends Alexandra in the marketplace -- are played by non-professionals.