Legendary soprano Galina Vishnevskaya will forever be linked with such legendary recordings as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Prokofiev’s War and Peace. Her opposition to Soviet rule, along with husband Mstislav Rostropovich, caused headlines around the world. When director Alexander Sokurov was writing the screenplay for ALEXANDRA, he had only Vishnevskaya, who had limited film experience, in mind.
“This film is an offering to a great actress, a great citizen of our country…If for some reason she could not make this film, the film simply would not exist. I also want to say that this is also my tribute of respect, and I have a sense of guilt before Galina Pavlovna and Rostropovich, before all of the people who in their time, when things were so difficult in our homeland, made the first step toward transforming life in our country, who were not afraid to take on the hard, strong state and announce their right to have a voice, freedom, democracy, and independence. I was just a student then. I remember the times well, and I consider it my fault, that I did not raise my voice to defend these great people. My guilt is just as great before Solzhenitsyn and before the people who demonstrated in Red Square against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and so on and so on. Great is my personal guilt as a citizen of the Soviet Union, as a young man, great is my guilt before them. And perhaps, this film will expiate my guilt to some degree.”
With such a political statment, Sokurov maintains that ALEXANDRA is not a political film. Vishnevskaya plays a grandmother who visits her officer grandson on the Chechnian front. Walking through the heat-drenched (reportedly 132 degrees at times) camp and ruined Chechnian streets, Alexandra witnesses the toll of war expressed in the faces of the Russian soldiers and the battered Chechnian people. Alexandra appears out of place in this war-torn country, a woman in a world of men and an uncomfortable reminder of home.
Watching the film again on its recent DVD release, I was struck by how much emotion is expressed with so little dialogue. The pain, suffering and longing can be found in the faces, the silences, and the music. As producer and composer Andrey Sigle explained: “We had a very difficult shoot. It’s a fact that the war was still happening when we were there. We saw the war…We were there on purpose to feel the pain of the people not just to rely on hearsay. The main thing was the compassion and love [Sokurov] felt with the suffering people. I felt and understood the pain that they were living with on a daily basis—destroyed homes, lives, and homeless children. That is why I was writing the music as if I was writing an anthem to these people.”
Sigle channels the great Russian masters, Tchaikvosky and Rachmaninoff in particular, to create an elegiac, somber score, one that tugs at the heartstrings without feeling manipulative.
There are no simple solutions in the film, and neither is there in Sigle’s music. Characters from two different worlds inhabit a seemingly frozen moment in time, while the musical themes wind down in despair or yearn upwards in longing, often within bars of each other, searching for answers or simply existing. Accordion, guitar and clarinet create a simple, Russian folksong harmony that backs the familial feeling between Alexandra and Denis (Vasily Shevtsov).
The score never rises much above a hush in the film. It makes its presence felt and leaves a lingering aura of sadness and frustration on the conscience, but you’re seldom aware of it while watching the film. That’s why the CD release of this score on Movie Score Media came as a welcome surprise. Unless your name is Morricone or Desplat, the chances of a stateside release of your score for a foreign film are slim. Let’s hope we hear more of Sigle’s work in the future.