Aleksandr Sokurov makes films to be felt rather than watched, which can make writing about them a bitch. (Unless you're Proust, how do you put an epiphany into words?) Alexandra is the Russian visionary's newest step toward a cinema of pure emotion, and it might be his most accessible work since Russian Ark. Part of it is due to the plot's universality of theme (greatly adduced from Grigori Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier), part of it is due to Galina Vishnevskaya's presence as the eponymous babushka, arguably the most robust protagonist to inhabit the director's spectral landscapes. Alexandra, the 80-year-old widow visiting her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) in a military base, enters the movie with hands firmly on her hips, a tough old bird rather than the slowly expiring matriarch in Sokurov's magnificent Mother and Son, a film of such overwhelming sadness that its mere description was once enough to bring my own mom to copious tears. The arid setting is the Chechen front; Alexandra is taken to the barracks in an armored train along with the young Russian soldiers, a masterful passage of languid glances and murmurs, like a doleful melody gradually remembered. Old age and the dusty surroundings ("God, it's stifling" is an ongoing refrain) are the main obstacles, but the grandmother's journey is as resolute as it is vague, and she gamely accompanies Denis on a tour of the camp -- shirtless grunts in the sun, a cavernous tank, fires in the distance illuminating the night.
As usual with Sokurov, the elements become active players, though Mother Nature in Alexandra has a formidable time keeping up with Mother Russia. The stout, direct Vishnevskaya, an opera star, emanates grave force: Like Maria Callas in Pasolini's Medea, she's used for the intensity of the arias she isn't allowed to sing. The character is handed a Kalashnikov and surveys it with tacit gusto, she deals with the officer assigned to keep an eye on her with fond irritability; the young soldiers worry about her wanderings ("Careful! You'll fall out, grandma"), she shoots back without missing a beat ("No I won't, grandpa"). When Alexandra goes to the local market and befriends an elderly Chechen woman (Raisa Gichaeva), however, she drops her guard and we realize that such national pride might be as heavy a burden on her as the imperial seclusion was on Sokurov's Hirohito in The Sun. The film is full of small human figures contrasted with barren expanses and military machinery, devastation is off-screen yet it is everywhere -- "You can destroy, but when will you learn to rebuilt," the heroine bluntly asks the men. Still, it would be as reductive to try to brand Alexandra an "anti-war" picture as it would be to ignore the erotic feeling the protagonist gets from nuzzling Denis's chest ("You smell good, the way men sometimes smell") or shutting her eyes while he braids her gray hair. Eccentric and tender, it is a picture out for grace rather than polemics, and it finds enough to make one see emotional intimacy anew.
In Alexandra, the protagonist is escorted back to the base by a sullen Chechen youngster who, in the movie's single questioning of Russia's military presence in the area, asks her, "Why don't you let us be free?" ("If only it was that simple," Alexandra sighs.) A similar sense of sorrow pervades Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, a much more conventional humanistic parable that it is wise and graceful all the same. Israeli-Arab relations provide the imbroglio here, the opposites finding common ground are the members of an Egyptian classical-music ensemble and the remote Israeli hamlet in which they find themselves stranded. The bandleader (Sasson Gabai) is a primly courteous widower, as dignified as one can be while decked in a blue uniform in the middle of the desert; his match is the local restaurant owner (Ronit Elkabetz), an earthy, whisky-voiced sensualist bored with her surroundings and in love with the glamour of old movies. Other strands in the dusk-till-dawn narrative include the band's resident Don Juan (Saleh Bakri) giving romantic advice to a tongue-tied nebbish (Shlomi Avraham) at a roller disco, a shy clarinet player with an unfinished concerto, and another guy perpetually waiting by the pay phone in hopes of a call from his girlfriend. In its gently dislocated timbre, intercultural revelations, and wry visual humor, The Band's Visit feels like the film The Darjeeling Limited should have been -- without having to raise its voice, it posits in the characters' human longing a hopeful connective tissue that overrides language and history (as when Elkabetz asks Gabai to say something in Arabic, "just to hear the music").
The new, CGI-fueled version of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who! might not exactly take up the torch from last year's exceptional batch of animated features, but its warmth and playfulness go a long way in healing the sores left by the sight of Mike Myers galumphing in furry latex and striped hat. Directed by Steve Martino and Jimmy Hayward, the film is closer to Happy Feet than to earlier, scabrous live-action Dr. Seuss adaptations -- a frequently beguiling fantasy packed with ticklish sights and vocals (Jim Carrey and Steve Carell supply their most appealing, least selfish performances in many a moon), and also hints of what the titular pachyderm dubs an "amazing cosmic convergence." When Horton the elephant (voiced by Carrey) protects microscopic Whoville from the unimaginative tyranny of Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), we are back to the quandaries of Alexandra and The Band's Visit in the willful ignorance of a system that would rather not believe in the existence of foreign cultures. (Let it be said at once that the original text has lost little of its resonance.) Horton carries such baggage casually, and it's so generous that even the inevitable pop references (a mock-animé interlude, say) are funny instead of just Shrek-like detritus. In the end, it should be enough to say that the picture's spirit is genuinely Seussian, and that it provides richer animation and more lucid politics than all of Chicago 10.
Reviewed April 6, 2008.