Sunday, June 22, 2008


Factotum is a film directed by Bent Hamer, adapted from the novel of the same name by Charles Bukowski. The film is principally a Norwegian production, although with an American cast. It was released in Norway in 2005 and distributed in the U.S. by IFC Films in 2006. It was released on DVD in the U.S. on 26 December 2006.

Bukowski's book, also titled Factotum, was published in 1975. It centers on the character of Henry Chinaski, who is widely known to be Bukowski’s alter ego.

In the film, Chinaski (Matt Dillon) is working toward becoming a writer, and follows his own advice that "If you're going to try, go all the way." The film follows Chinaski's various jobs and relationships with women. The only things consistent in Chinaski's life (shown in repeated scenes throughout the film) seem to be his drinking and his writing. Chinaski has a more lasting relationship with one woman, Jan, (Lili Taylor), who is also a broke alcoholic. They both find, however, that they do not need one another, and part ways. Chinaski continues writing, though he gets no tangible rewards.

The screenplay, by Hamer and Jim Stark, is based on the book of the same title, the 1975 sort-of autobiography by Charles Bukowski, the Los Angeles poet often included with the Beats, some say wrongly. His alter ego, Henry (Hank) Chinaski, last appeared on the screen in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly (1987), with Mickey Rourke in the title role. Before that, it was a much grittier movie, Marco Ferreri's Storie di ordinaria follia (1981), that put Ben Gazzara in a gutsy performance as a Bukowski stand-in probably the closest to the real thing.

Bukowski himself, who died in 1994, adapted his own book for Barfly and even had a cameo appearance sitting at the bar. My overwhelming feeling while watching Factotum was that the story of Bukowski's life comes off this time as hagiography. I am not a big fan of Bukowski, a man whose prolific production is remarkable, but I often have the feeling when reading his work that he could have used a merciless editor. People who love him appreciate that rawness, but I prefer my literature a little more filtered. Bukowski's literary voice, that rambling, foul-mouthed vomit of words, is mostly edited out of Factotum. We hear one poem in voiceover ("A poem is a city"), and it is read in a truncated form. Matt Dillon's calm, slow-moving Chinaski loses a series of meaningless jobs, drinks and smokes but not to grotesque excess, and hooks up with a couple different women. Waking up on a bench one morning seems to mark his low point. It is an achievement to have made a life like Bukowski's seem this dull and colorless. The city extolled in that voiceover poem as "filled with streets and sewers / filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen, / filled with banality and booze" is not even Bukowski's Los Angeles: the film was shot in Minneapolis, as eerily empty of people as a de Chirico painting.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the life dissected here, that the glamor of literary poverty is a fallacy. Chinaski spends a lot of time sitting at the bar, telling lies to prospective employers and girlfriends, scribbling short stories on a legal pad, and dropping envelopes in mailboxes. This may be a realistic description of much of Bukowsi's life, but it does not make for a particularly gripping cinematic experience. Hamer does capture the desperation of a couple, Jan and Chinaski, who are perfectly matched for one another but grow to loathe one another's company. The couple who drinks together, sleeps together, and even throws up together after a bad binge (in the movie's funniest scene) cannot always live together.

In spite of the screenplay's weaknesses, Hamer draws strong performances from his cast. Matt Dillon, husky and red-faced, plays the role for all the intensity and humor he can get. Lili Taylor, who is still at the top of every independent film director's speed dial, is courageous and infuriating as Jan, Bukowski's drunken, slutty muse. Far more interesting but on the screen for much less time is Marisa Tomei -- whose mainstream career tanked around the time she turned 40 -- as the other woman, Laura. Tomei, all legs, mascara-heavy eyes, and drunken semi-oblivion, gave work of the strength she showed last in Unhook the Stars. Continuing our tour of our favorite independent film actresses, there is a too-brief appearance from Adrienne Shelly, discovered in the 1990s by Hal Hartley in two of his best early films, Trust and The Unbelievable Truth. I guess Parker Posey just didn't return Bent Hamer's calls. Factotum is worth watching for these performances, but it may not be for everyone.

Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor star in Bent Hamer's understated adaptation of the second novel by legendary writer, drinker, shirker and poet, Charles Bukowski
"When you drank the world was still out there," wrote Charles Bukowski in his 1975 novel 'Factotum', "but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat."

With bloody-minded tenacity, the bullet-proof poet carved out a place for himself in the pantheon of American letters somewhere between the Beats and that other chronicler of sozzled sorrow, Raymond Carver. Brutal yet beautiful, raw yet romantic, Bukowski described the view from the bar, the bench and the gutter while resisting the twin temptations that afflict most writers with a thirst, sentiment and self-pity.

Between them, Factotum's director Bent Hamer and star Matt Dillon take Bukowski's squalid celebrations of failure and turn them into a deadpan film about defeat, defiance and dedicated drinking that exceeds the more lively but less sensitive Bukowski biopic Barfly, and avoids the macho posturing - to which Bukowski's writing is undeniably prone - of the Spanish film Tales Of Ordinary Madness. For Dillon, it's a performance equal to Drugstore Cowboy or Beautiful Girls. For Hamer, it's both a logical progression and a big leap on from his literal treatment of the kitchen sink drama, Kitchen Stories.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


A dozen men—who represent an artistically gerrymandered cross-section of society—are sequestered in a jury room to decide the fate of a teenage boy on trial for murder. The informal conversation as the men prepare to deliberate indicates that they expect to be on their way home within minutes, since the prosecution's case is so compelling. Sure enough, the first vote is 11:1 in favor of conviction. Two-plus hours (and more than a dozen monologues) later, the 1 has persuaded the 11 to join him on the other side of the colon, so to speak, and vote for acquittal. This is the familiar plot of Sidney Lumet's 1957 film Twelve Angry Men, based on Reginald Rose's 1954 teleplay (Rose also wrote the screenplay for Lumet's film). Fifty years later, Nikita Mikhalkov has adapted the story for a 21 st century Russian audience, and the resulting film, despite its small cast, narrow narrative focus, and unitary setting, is ultimately concerned with the same ambitious question Mikhalkov poses in his other, more epic productions: What Is Russia? The director's answer this time around is once again articulated via a patented mixture of metaphor, masculinity, and monologism.

This is not to say that 12 is not an engaging, expertly shot, and well-acted film by a seasoned professional and a high-caliber cast and crew. It provides 150 entertaining minutes, especially for Russophiles, which is one likely reason the film was submitted as Russia's official 2008 Oscar nominee as Best Foreign Film. That is a position in which Mikhalkov, of course, has found himself before (winning the Oscar for his 1994 film Burnt By the Sun [Utomlennye solntsem]), but in this case it is more impressive, considering that the director shot the film during hiatuses in the production of his much “larger” film, Burnt By the Sun 2 .

In their visual and demographic diversity, and their shared enthusiasm for performing, the characters in 12 are like a contemporary, hypertrophic Russian version of the Village People: an engineer who went from rags to riches after inventing a cell phone diode (Sergei Makovetskii); a gruff, racist taxi driver (Sergei Garmash); an elderly Jew (Valentin Gaft); an effete New Russian television producer (Iurii Stoianov); a surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergei Gazarov); a comic actor (Mikhail Efremov); a cemetery director; the son of a high-ranking Soviet bureaucrat; a liberal “democrat”; a simple-minded metro employee; and a retired officer (Mikhalkov himself) who spends his leisure time painting watercolors and serving on juries. Each juror's autobiographical monologue functions not only as character development, naturally; each presents the recounted life history or event(s) as part of the juror's rationale for his vote. Many of the stories are about redemption. Fatherhood is also a leitmotif, both in the monologues and in the story of the twice-defathered Chechen boy (in Rose's original play it was a Puerto Rican boy) on trial. The emphasis on paternal and filial relations, as well as the intricacy and quality of the script, is likely due in large part to Mikhalkov's co-screenwriters, Vladimir Moiseenko and Aleksandr Novotskii, who also wrote the acclaimed 2004 film The Return (Vozvrashchenie; dir. Andrei Zviagintsev).

Although the performances are mostly very good, Garmash's working-class xenophobe stands out because his is the best-written role and because he is played by Garmash, Russia's best and hardest-working character actor. Almost all of the film's inevitable interpersonal conflicts involve him: the chauvinistic prole vs. the transplanted Caucasian; the chauvinistic prole vs. the soft New Russian mama's boy; the chauvinistic prole vs. the old Jew; the chauvinistic prole vs. the comedian. The screenplay steers clear of overt references to Soviet and post-Soviet politics, except for two brief moments of friction between the “democrat” and two of the other jurors, the former communist bureaucrat and Garmash's aforementioned working man.

Unlike Rose's play or Lumet's film, Mikhalkov's version cuts away from the jury room several times in order to fill in the accused boy's back story. He was the son of a couple in Chechnia who were unsympathetic to the anti-Russian resistance. Indeed, the family was close friends with a Russian officer, who would later adopts the boy and bring him to live with him in Moscow as his son. There, the (now-retired) officer and his ward become the victims of an elaborate financially-motivated conspiracy by organized crime (almost a de rigeur motif in contemporary Russian film dramas), a scheme that the jurors collectively uncover over the course of their loquacious deliberations.

The setting, a school gymnasium being used by the court while the jury room is being remodeled, is an excellent choice and allows for much more (literal) action than the claustrophobic room in which the Rose/Lumet version of the story takes place. For one thing, claustrophobia is not a sensation readily associated with Russia, especially in the context of the broad ruminations on her past, present, and future in which Mikhalkov and his characters engage here. For another, the gym equipment and space provide the jurors with a setting and props for their elaborate recreation of the crime. The gym is put to full metaphorical use, as well: with its large windows and the snowstorm whirling outside them, it is a microcosm of the hothouse society that was the Soviet Union. The various evidence of the school kids who use the gym during the daytime—a syringe and a brassiere are the most prominent—allow the jurors to comment on contemporary youth. A piano locked in a cage is a trope that speaks for itself. A dangerously leaky hot-oil pipe that was installed “temporarily” in 1967 provides the metaphorical impetus for Mikhalkov's climactic monologue about the country. Finally, a sparrow (an image Mikhalkov used in The Barber of Siberia [ Sibirskii tsiriul'nik , 1998], as well) is deployed as a rather obvious symbol in the film's weak epilogue, which adds yet another platitude to the image of Russia represented. Still 12 is a highly watchable film that is commendably less platitudinous than some of Mikhalkov's other recent contributions to the Russian national conversation

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Mabei Shang De Fating

On the meandering red-earth path in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, a traveling law court gets on a tour. Feng, who is in his mid-50s, is a seasoned judge; the court clerk Auntie Yang belongs to the Moso Ethnic Group and is retiring because of the changed personnel policy; Ah-Luo, a recent college graduate of Yi Ethnic Group, is on his very first tour of duty.

They share a companion in an old horse, which is carrying all the court facilities. In a village of the Pumi ethnic people, Feng deals with a dispute around a grave dug up by pigs; after Ah-Luo loses the national emblem, the symbol of the state authority, at Moso people’s swamp, they have to seek help from the woman chief…

In the village where a wedding is awaiting Ah-Luo, an unexpected incident leads to a confrontation; after an argument with Feng, Ah-Luo runs away with his bride, giving up the career that he finds hopeless. Auntie Yang doesn’t finish the tour because of her early retirement; without the companion that he secretly loves, Feng has to continue the tour that becomes lonely and desperate…

It was during my trip to Southwest China’s Yunnan province in 2003 that I first learned about the story. Following that, I had another six travels to Ninglang County in Yunnan. Located in the mountains in the northwest of Yunnan, the Ninglang County is isolated from the outside by dangerous paths. Covering an area of about 6,000 square kilometer, the place is home to some 210,000 people, who belong to 12 ethnic minorities. At the end of 2004, over 190,000 local residents were still living on the annual income under an equivalent of 70 euros.

Here, a local ethnic minority named Moso is still retaining the primitive social structure of matriarchy. As the director of Courthouse on the Horseback, I put the focus on the tour of duty of three court officials. Their experiences turn out to be a reflection of the status quo of China’s judicial system, the life in regions resided by ethnic minorities in China, the issues of ethnicity, culture, environment, development, religion, the clash between tradition and modernity, and most prominently, the public’s trust in the judicial system.

The national emblem carried by the horse is the exact image of the local judicial system, which is on a bumpy road of development. Currently, there are nearly one thousand such mobile courthouses in China. The issue presented in the movie is quite common in China’s rural areas. The story is based on what actually happening in China in the 21st century.

Liu Jie was born February 18, 1968 in North China’s Tianjin. As a child, he loved painting. In 1986, he went to Beijing for the entrance exams of Central Academy of Fine Arts. There, an accidental viewing of the movie Yellow Earth changed the course of his life. In 1987, he entered the Beijing Film Academy and studied photography for 4 years. From 1992 to 2003, as director of photography or producer, he made a number of acclaimed independent films, none of which, however, met the general public in Chinese mainland. Courthouse on the Horseback, Liu’s first work as director, will open this September in Beijing, China.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Alexander Nikolayevich Sokurov (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Соку́ров) (b. June 14, 1951, Podorwikha, Irkutsk Oblast) is a Russian filmmaker from St Petersburg who has been hailed as successor to renowned director Andrei Tarkovsky. His movies are said[citation needed] to represent an ultimate challenge in contemporary intellectual film making.

Sokurov was born in Siberia in the officer's family on June 14, 1951. He graduated from the History Department of the Nizhny Novgorod University in 1974 and entered one of the VGIK studios the following year. There he made friends with Tarkovsky and was deeply influenced by his Mirror.

Most of Sokurov's early features were banned by Soviet authorities. During his early period, he produced numerous documentaries, including an interview with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a reportage about Grigori Kozintsev's flat in St Petersburg.

Mother and Son (1996) was his first internationally acclaimed feature film. It was mirrored by Father and Son (2003) which baffled the critics with its implicit homoeroticism (though Sokurov himself has criticized this particular interpretation{{In the Wellspring DVD release, critic Armond White cited Sokurov's defense of the film against charges that it is "homoerotic." White explicated Sokurov's artistic and spiritual style, noting "To accept Sokurov's images without fear or limitation--to think love not smut--points lust in the direction of progress." March 31, 2008 Fact|date=March 2008}}). Sokurov has also filmed the first three installments of a planned tetralogy on prominent 20th-century rulers: Moloch (1999) about Hitler, Taurus (2000) about Lenin, and The Sun (2004) about Emperor Hirohito.

Sokurov is a Cannes Film Festival regular, four of his movies having debuted there one by one. Although he has been somewhat reluctant to cast accomplished actors in his features,[citation needed] the Russian Film Academy awarded several Nika Awards to him. His most commercially and critically successful effort to date has been a semi-documentary Russian Ark (2002), acclaimed primarily for its visually hypnotic images and single, unedited, shot.

A war movie that isn’t about war, but rather about what war does with people.

With Aleksandra, Aleksander Sokurov fortifies his position as Russia’s pre-eminent living master of cinema, – thanks in no small part to the remarkable performance by Russian opera legend Galina Vishnevskaya as the character the film is named for. In her first film as an actress, the 81-year old Visjnevskaja delivers one of the defining performances of this decade, and Sokurov presents and frames it with the grace and artistry it deserves.

Aleksandra travels from Russia to Chechnya to visit her grandson, serving among the Russian forces there. But Sokurov is after something far greater than a mere critique of Putin’s policies in breakaway Caucasian backwaters; he has made a war movie that isn’t about war, but rather about what war does with people. And in the hands of a master like Sokurov, the answers are not just found in the action or the dialogue, but just as much in the film’s painterly form, where the world seems drained of both color and compassion.

Aleksandra Nikolaevna visits her grandson, a Russian soldier serving in Chechnia. Everyone—soldiers and Chechens alike—treat her respectfully. The grandmother spends two nights and heads home to St. Petersburg.

Three questions come to mind, of which the first two are somewhat childlike. First, does this story make any sense? Second, what does Sokurov think about Chechnia? And third—the only real question for Sokurophiles—what kind of Sokurov is this? I will concentrate on the last question, since its answer—right or wrong—will perhaps lend the other two questions more significance.

Thematically, Alexandra is a contribution to Sokurov's cluster of family portraits, familiar to us from Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1996) and Father and Son (Otets i syn, 2003), as well as their promised continuation, Two Brothers and a Sister. This assignment, of course, is not indisputable. If one cared to, one could claim Alexandra as a variant of Sokurov's abiding interest in military service, as in Spiritual Voices (Dukhovnye golosa, 1995) and Confession (Ispoved', 1998), but it would not matter much. Like family portraiture, the military cluster is another thematic inventory and not the most interesting kind of analysis. Let us, therefore, conditionally retain Alexandra in the cluster of family portraiture in order to make several other points.

Sokurov's first family portrait, Mother and Son, had been closer as a medium to painting than to story-telling, while his subsequent Father and Son offered a greater balance between visual and narrative modes. If, in Mother and Son, cameraman Aleksei Fedorov's painterly depth and anamorphic stretch moved story-telling to the sidelines—pushed it “out of the picture,” as it were—then Father and Son returned to us the reassuring narrative drive of certain earlier films.[1] Alexandra, while sharing portraiture with both films, follows the structural lead of Father and Son in providing an understated but steady plot. Absent is not only the anamorphism of Mother and Son, but other camera and editing devices as well: the documentary inserts of Mournful Indifference (Skorbnoe beschuvstvie, 1983; released 1987), the extreme anatomical close-ups of Taurus (Telets, 2000), the digital animation and hallucinatory episodes of Sun (Solntse, 2004).

In place of this visual play, we have a subdued picture of Chechnia, a land without bloodshed, a place where the most violent conflicts are mild verbal rebukes. For a filmmaker who has returned again and again to the topic of death, and for whom Chechnia would be another opportunity to do so, Alexandra is striking in its indifference to this trope. Likewise absent here—perhaps because of its potential colonialist valence in this context—is Sokurov's recurring preoccupation with high culture—and European elite culture in particular—as a resource of human wisdom. Instead, Sokurov's soundtrack emphasizes original music by Andre Sigle. His aural design of the film attempts none of the ideological assertions of Russia's cultural contribution to which we are accustomed in Sokurov from Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) and elsewhere. ...

To situate Alexandra accurately, however, one must still consider the director's growing disregard for plot, its secular and earthbound status, even at the same time as it is offered to us in Alexandra. Here the issue is not the presence or absence of plot (as in Mother and Son), but its status, the filmmaker's changing relationship to it as a kind of spiritual lapse. Narrative—a profane if necessary element of filmmaking—occupies a low status in Sokurov's world. “If the film is based on the principle of the story, the narrative,” he insists unequivocally, “it is not art” (“An Interview” 18). Iurii Arabov, his frequent scriptwriter, confirms this preference: “A large part of the films of world cinema,” Arabov asserts in an interview with Irina Liubarskaia, “are anchored in the plot. Aleksandr Nikolaevich goes against this flood” (110).

Sokurov's films may sometimes be stylistically ornamented, decorative, even self-trivializing, akin in certain ways to Muratova's work. Films of this ornamental type are filled with pageantry, spectacle, and extravagant distraction. They are often thickly plotted—such as Mournful Indifference —but they need not be; Russian Ark, for example, has little substantive plot other than the flow of rooms and history, but is an example of the ornamental Sokurov.

Opposed to this stylistic ornamentalism is the Sokurov who is austere and uncluttered, whose value lies in texture and severity: Mother and Son is the best-known example, but his military documentaries and his lesser-known Japanese stories are others. While these austere films tend to lack plot, this is not universally the case, and Alexandra is an example of a plotted, austere film. [2] These two key oppositions—one that cares about the medium (painting/narrative), the other, style (ornamental/austere)—help to define the kind of cinema we see in Sokurov's newest work.

Increasingly, plot may be present—for those inhabiting the secular world, as it were—but is no longer permitted to drive the film. Moloch (1999), for example, restrains itself to Hitler's one-day visit, relatively eventless, at Kehlsteinhaus. Taurus is one day late in Lenin's life, a day when he (ostentatiously, one might argue) does not die, but will soon. Sun is one day in Hirohito's life when he makes a single important decision: he will stop being God. All three films—his unfinished Great Leader tetralogy—gain symbolic weight by restricting the temporal setting to a single day. Beyond its investment in family portraiture, Alexandra at the same time also participates in these same nychthemeral rhythms: the grandmother spends one full day at the encampment, with a night on either side.

This, then, is the Sokurov we are seeing in Alexandra: a visual austerity and a subdued plot line; a tightly constricted time frame in which little happens. The initial, obvious link with Sokurov's family films—earlier, a mother or father and a son; here, a grandmother and grandson—gains greater complexity in one deeply erotic episode. As the grandson Denis nuzzles his grandmother, then combs out and braids her thin, grey hair, we see traces (surely, I would like to think, a provocational retort on Sokurov's part) of the same family eroticism to which Western critics had reacted in Father and Son .

The film's lead, Aleksandra Nikolaevna, sensitively performed by the opera diva Galina Vishnevskaia, is by turns intimate and abrupt, poised and clumsy, fragile and self-sufficient, ornery and dear. As she navigates the military compound and the nearby Chechen marketplace, she brings to mind three figures. The first, inevitably perhaps, is a variant of Mother Russia, most specifically the figure in I. M. Toidze's 1941 poster The Motherland is Calling! (Rodina-mat' zovet!), the World War II image of a full-figured older woman with a head scarf and a strong imperial mission statement, backed up—just in case—by bayonets. A second association (I like to think, with some humor on Sokurov's part) is the grandmother as a military general: a general-transvestite who inspects the troops, queries the soldiers, peers through the rifle scope and pulls the trigger, approves of the discipline, and rides in the tank. It would be tempting to misread these shots as Sokurov's final verdict on the war: if the grandmother is happy, then the war must be good. But this shot, coming in mid-film, is not the end of his argument and to see it as a conclusion would be a misreading of the film's structure. A third association—given the similarity of “Aleksandra Nikolaevna” to “Aleksandr Nikolaevich” [Sokurov]—is the grandmother as Sokurov himself, struggling to make sense of the very footage he is shooting, wielding the camera as she learns to wield the Kalashnikov.

Blessedly, however, the grandmother is finally none of these: neither a Mother Russia (ideologically available for all times and all wars), nor a military defender, nor the filmmaker's double. Nor is she, for that matter, Galina Vishnevskaia playing herself. By the film's end, Sokurov makes clear, the grandmother is a specific and limited historical truth, a generational worldview, with its own ethics and blind spots.

What, then, does the film suggest about Sokurov's Chechnia? The film is reserved, yet three pivotal dialogues deserve mention. The first is marked by silence: soldiers, discussing the Motherland, disagree with each other: for one soldier, “all this”—including Chechnia—is Motherland; the other asks derisively what kind of Motherland is this, this alien and degraded space? Aleksandra Nikolaevna turns away from them in fatigue and despair, without a clear position. In a second scene, a dialogue with a Chechen boy who agitates for Russian withdrawal, she replies: “Ask God for reason. Strength is not in weapons.” It would seem that our grandmother is a liberal.

But it is the third scene with her grandson Denis that rescues the film from a humorless portrayal of the all-wise matriarchal totem. Denis berates her for perpetuating the legacy of family tyranny (“someone has always controlled someone else: grandfather controlled you; you controlled my mother; my mother controlled me…”), of indelicacy and intrusiveness (“you always expected us to lift up the blanket [for you to peek underneath]”). As the violence of family relations becomes a metonym of political relations, their family spat suddenly creates a re-alignment of loyalties in the film. Aleksandra Nikolaevna shares as much with the elderly Chechen market-woman as with her grandson. As for the young men—whether the Russian grandson Denis or the Chechen boy—they struggle for independence both in the microcosm of the family and the macrocosm of the region, alike in their desire for privacy and separation. Sokurov's irony is that these young men, with so much in common, are assigned to kill each other.

This ideological re-alignment saves the film from what might otherwise be an oppressively sententious lesson in uncomplicated thinking. It gets director Aleksandr Nikolaevich, so to speak, out of Aleksandra Nikolaevna's attire. In the end, the film suggests that a correct moral answer lies neither with this regal, elderly Leningrader whom one cannot help but admire, nor with her struggling, pragmatic grandson. It lies instead with the passage of time and irrevocable supersession of one mentality, with all its strengths and vulnerabilities, by another, inevitably also as credible as it is flawed.

We are left with one remaining question, perhaps a bit richer now in this context: How could we believe such an incredible plot? After all, the grandmother is unlikely to have been granted such access to the military encampment; unlikely to have been attended to by such solicitous soldiers; unlikely to have been treated with such gentility by the local Chechen population.

So often in Sokurov's work, these failures of verisimilitude point to (what Sokurov would like to see as) the weakness of the question. As in Sun, where Sokurov was unconcerned with the historical Hirohito's atrocities, or in the documentary Leningrad Retrospective (1957-1990) (Leningradskaia retrospektiva (1957-1990), 1990), in which he was hardly concerned with the historical Leningrad, or the television series Spiritual Voices, which bore only the most contingent relation to military service on the Afghan border, Sokurov is keen on establishing what might be thought of as laboratory conditions for the consideration of a specific ethical problem. Here, that question is this: how are these figures—the worthy grandmother, the worthy Russian solider, the worthy Chechen market-woman, and the worthy Chechen neighbor boy—different facets of a truth that, for Sokurov, can only reside beyond the reach of human knowledge, a truth of which cinema—providing it carefully tunes its own apparatus—may provide glimpses?

Sokurov's staging of these conditions suggests that our stance of incredulity is a human failing. He asks us instead to participate in a practice of cinema-watching akin in some respects to religious ritual, also not renowned for verisimilitude. If we were to participate in this ritual—and we certainly need not do so—we would find that his images correspond in no way to unmediated social experience, such as the real-life behavior of Russian troops or Chechen market sellers. Instead, his soldiers and Chechens are dynamic, digital i cons, endowed with “a fairy-tale-like discourse,” as Sokurov had described it with respect to Father and Son, “a narrative that is both universal and extremely rare and strange […] a mythological text” (Sokurov, “An Interview” 26).

Does Sokurov's Alexandra take a stand on Chechnia? Not in the same way that such filmmakers as Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains [Kavkazskii plennik, 1996]) or Aleksandr Rogozhkin (Checkpoint [Blokpost, 1998] ). It is not at their level of either diegetic representation or contemporary controversy that Sokurov enters the debate. Instead, Sokurov suggests that the very passage of time that had created the cultural ties is the same passage of time that will erase them. Generational succession will eliminate the elderly women who have had much in common and it will raise to maturity the young men who, in their struggle to separate and (so far) to kill each other, also have much in common.

The supersession of one generation by another is fraught with terrible losses, in Sokurov's world view. If one turns to his website, Island of Sokurov (Ostrov Sokurova), one finds a monologue on Alexandra, remarkable as much for its insularity as for its conservative, orientalist nostalgia, deserving of quotation despite its length. Sokurov writes:

When an intonation of trust emerges, all else remains insignificant , a ll the more so if everyone speaks in a single language—in Russian. It is very important that people who are different [from one another] have one language. […] Those who negate the value of a situation in which people of various confessions, of various ethnicities and customs have a medium of social contact and approach—the language—deny a great historical and God-given gift. Moreover, in Chechnia and other places in the Caucasus there are those who command a high linguistic culture; among the intelligentsia of the Caucasus are people who have a remarkable mastery of the Russian language, such as one would not encounter in Russia among native speakers. Therefore a great deal of attention [in the film] is devoted to the unifying significance of the Russian language. After all, in Russian it is possible to say anything at all: military men as well as bandits speak in this language. But, above all else, it is the language of unification.

Unsurprising though it is that military men and bandits speak the same language, whether in Russia or elsewhere, we will not be distracted by that detail. Instead, it might be suggested, Sokurov's Aleksandra is a lament for a linguistic and cultural state he knows to be in its twilight stage. Not for nothing in this film are the most competent speakers the two elderly women. More revelatory in the website of Sokurov's conceptual orientation, however, is his delineation between his homeland (“one would not encounter in Russia …”) and Chechnia, as if these were sovereign terrains. It is an old imperial habit, dating back at least to Pushkin, to understand Russia as a strategic alternation between a land distinct from the colonies (ethno-cultural Russia) and a land that includes them (imperial Russia). Sokurov demonstrates his centuries-old loyalties in what is—in itself—a remarkable film, even as the filmmaker himself invokes “trust” and “God-given gift” in terms that are themselves, in the end, astonishingly partisan.