In 2002, the Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov mounted quite a cinematic feat with "Russian Ark," a 99-minute movie, filmed in a single shot, that followed a 19th-century French aristocrat through the halls of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. The elaborate production took most of Russian history as its purview, starred a time-traveling guide and dueling narrators, and at one point choreographed a ballroom's worth of royals and soldiers in full regalia.
"Russian Ark" was a typically ambitious undertaking by Mr. Sokurov, and a transporting experience. Yet his latest, "Alexandra," which opens today at Film Forum, is equally audacious in its own humble way. Set in a Russian army encampment in Chechnya, the film consists entirely of a grandmother's brief visit to see her grandson, an army captain, and her walks when he is away. No guns or bombs go off ó we simply wander with the babushka's whims, yet the movie is raptly engaging.
Part of this is due to the redoubtable Galina Vishnevskaya, the 80-year-old former opera star who plays the title character with wit and wisdom. At her sturdy side, we tread the byways between tents and the stretch to the camp's checkpoint, and watch as she wryly jokes with, mothers, or pushes past buzz-cut young men in uniform. Rushing for no one, sitting where she pleases, Alexandra is a locus of calm contemplation, confident in the years that entertainingly grant her ultimate seniority.
Alexandra's moments with her grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) are tender and free-spoken ("You look like a peasant," she clucks). He proudly shows her around a personnel carrier, where she cocks a rifle, and then back at the tent movingly braids her long, gray hair. The other soldiers also dote on her ó that is, those who don't try to wrangle her (or ask for cigarettes).
It all melds with the style Mr. Sokurov has adopted for the film, a kind of sustained hush that he's used before. With gorgeous, washed-out colors and dreamy camera movement, "Alexandra" suspends the viewer in an elegiac, liminal state, attuned to the textures and murmurs of the world and to a sense of history passing. The logy camp looks faded over with dust, far away from the fight but as if possessing an old soul. (Mr. Sokurov's last film, "The Sun," evoked the insulation and unearthliness of Emperor Hirohito's last moments during the Armistice.)
A Russian strain of sentiment runs through "Alexandra," bolstered by a sometimes swelling score by Andrei Sigle. But Ms. Vishnevskaya's restraint and Mr. Sokurov's habit of letting conversations trail away in casual, low tones ground the feeling. When Alexandra walks out to the nearby Chechen market and ends up befriending an old woman selling supplies, it feels natural that they wonder aloud why they get on well without tension.
Alexandra could be a symbol for Russia, and in a way she can't help but embody all that she and her country have seen. She dictates a certain idealism to a sullen Chechen teen, praising intelligence over strength when he asks her about the war; but she's also a grandmother dictating her hard-won opinion to a youngster. For a Russian (or Chechen) viewer who has been closer to the grueling and grisly conflict, however, Mr. Sokurov's film must hold special weight, not least because Ms. Vishnevskaya's husband, the exiled master cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, was one of the Soviet Union's greatest outspoken advocates for freedom; Mr. Sokurov made a recent documentary of the couple before Rostropovich's death.
The destruction wreaked by the war appears here in the beautiful-terrible background as a row of fires on the horizon, and then up close in the shredded, shelled building where Alexandra's new Chechen friend lives. Mr. Sokurov's film is as much of the moment as it is about experiencing it with Alexandra, who leaves as she came, shrouded in the meditative darkness of a train.
Through April 8 (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).