Tank and File: Alexandra walks the line between its anti-war message and family tale.

The soldiers populating the anti-war wisp of a film Alexandra need to be reminded that it’s not polite to stare. From the minute the frumpy, slow-moving, but commanding titular character boards a dusty Russian train to a Chechen military camp to visit her grandson, she’s gawked at—with smirks, with disbelief, and occasionally with longing by battle-weary kids who could use a good nurturing. The fact that they are young enough to still induce the urge to scold them about their manners, however, is part of what fuels the melancholy in writer-director Aleksandr Sokurov’s drama. The other source is the plump nana herself: Alexandra (opera star Galina Vishnevskaya) may be elderly, but she doesn’t hesitate to plant herself in a war zone as long as it allows her to reunite with her grandson, an officer named Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), and therefore a reconnection with the world after being widowed two years prior. After Denis abides her bear hugs and gives her a tour of the site (which includes Alexandra trying out an unloaded rifle and remarking, “It’s so easy”), she’s mostly left to entertain herself, usually muttering about the heat or how dirty everything is. There’s not much more to the story, which isn’t surprising coming from the director best known for 2002’s single-take feature, Russian Ark. Here, Sokurov pretty much trains his camera on Grandma as she wanders around without a second thought to protocol, more bemused than irritated that anyone under the age of 100 would try to tell her what to do. (“Run along,” she tells one boy tasked with guarding her.) She goes to the market to try to buy the soldiers cigarettes and cookies, making quick friends with a similarly creaky Chechen woman (a scene in which she serves Alexandra tea in her half-bombed apartment is touching) but mostly getting dirty looks from others who want the Russians out. The plot may be simple, but Sokurov’s message is unmistakable, his babushka’d mouthpiece even once complaining that it’s time for the military to rebuild instead of continually destroying. Still, Alexandra washes over you like a gentle slice-of-life movie rather than polemic, with Vishnevskaya demanding your attention every moment she’s onscreen: Lined, rotund, and wearing old dresses, the actress nonetheless projects a compelling beauty and gives her character a presence that’s schoolmarm gruff but rarely mean. The soldiers’ fascination with Alexandra may get irritating, but it’s certainly understandable.

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