Edan Corkill

What a difference an 82-year-old woman can make to a battlefield and, in the process, the war film genre.

The title character in Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov's Aleksandra, played by 1950s and 1960s opera star Galina Vishnevskaya, is old and proud and confident. That's enough to set her apart from most war-film women of her age, who tend to be victims left sobbing after the shooting stops, or token symbols of home in lonely grunts' dreams. For reasons that never really become apparent, this grand dame is visiting her grandson, Denis (played by Vasily Shevtsov), a captain in the Russian army who is stationed in a remote, desert-bound camp in Chechnya. The setup could almost furnish a comedy (anyone remember "Your Mother Wears Combat Boots"?), but those familiar with Sokurov's brooding and oddly effecting films will know better than to expect any laughs.

I've never been to war, so I have no knowledge how the presence of an octogenarian woman would effect the routine at a base that is just a tank drive from the front line, but Sokurov has painted a picture that is utterly believable, and utterly captivating.

The first thing you notice as Aleksandra gets ferried through the night from darkened troop-carrying train to cramped armored vehicle, is that her very presence makes the soldiers around her seem younger. It's not just the close-up juxtapositions of wrinkles and gray locks with smooth skin and crew cuts, but the way they act around her. The cracks of light in the carriage reveal confused and almost goofy looks like they've been caught by their mother in the act of stealing a midnight snack from the fridge.

The soldiers are also polite. As higher ranking troopers lead Aleksandra along this passage or that road, others saunter over mumbling offers of help with her luggage.

Part of the film's success lies with Sokurov's very obvious use of real soldiers. Their nervous goofiness was no doubt a genuine reaction to having a film crew in their barracks as much as to the elderly woman. Nevertheless, it's an effective ploy.

Aleksandra finally meets her grandson, and they spend the moments between his deployments on the frontlines in discussion of her life as it nears its end, and his, stalled pre-marriage. But more than the content of the conversation, it is a visual and aural spell that Sokurov casts with this film.

I've never seen such an engaging scene of soldiers cleaning their weapons. Young shaven heads bend over old guns as they are wrenched apart and polished with rags. And Aleksandra looks on. There is a tension inherent in her very presence here, and Sokurov revels in maximizing its effect. With his montage of guns, bulging muscles, buzzing helicopters and rumbling troop carriers, Sokurov keeps the film within an inch of catastrophic violence. And Aleksandra looks on.

There is also sexual tension strong enough to bridge distant generations. The one-time diva and still supremely flirtatious Vishnevskaya makes short work of the libidinous young boys she finds standing on guard or just hanging around. The first time her character sees her grandson is when she awakes to find him sleeping in a neighboring cot. She examines the minutiae of his body from sweat-beaded biceps to blistered feet. Later she lets out her long hair for him to plat it, and there are dozens of scenes in which the two are pushed together in small, private spaces armored vehicles, tents sufficient to spark thoughts of even the most unlikely of trysts.

But, like the violence, the sexual tension is never given release onscreen. Instead, those twin undercurrents serve as symbols for changes that each character must soon face. Grandson Denis must return home to start making his own family, and the elderly Aleksandra must confront her own impending death. Neither of them wants to, and it is almost with benevolence that Sokurov seems here to be giving them an unlikely moment of respite.