Sokurov in Yerevan By Anna Geréb
in 4th Yerevan Golden Apricot - International Film Festival
by Anna Geréb
Of course, I went from Budapest to Armenia for the first time in my life not for Sokurov. But already the first days spent here made me come to an interesting conclusion: it is not all the same where and when one watches films, since both place and time can color perceptions, things, thoughts, and values. And time and space here is wonderful, allowing us to sense the deep rupture of time with numerous underlying controversies. This is, of course, characteristic also for my own country, as much as for Russia, Sokurov’s native land; yet here, in Armenia, the so-called historical circumstances make the changes and contrasts even sharper.
It is fascinating and at the same time mind-boggling to observe, for example, how on Yerevan’s main street, among some miraculously preserved old buildings and with impoverished apartment blocks in the background, the gigantic Soviet-time state palaces built in a peculiar Armenian Stalin-baroque style turn into private elegant hotels (two of which hosted the guests of the festival). And how touching it is to feel here this sincere hospitality and careful attention with which our hosts surrounded us along with a surprisingly well-done organization, as if the Iron Curtain and Soviet isolation lasting seventy years never existed. On the other hand one feels a threatening vulnerability and existential instability of life of the majority of the Armenians (for whom medical insurance, for one, is practically non-existent). It is unlikely that the still frequently visible Russian-language street signs will be updated, but more and more young people are getting interested in Persian language and culture. And so on, and so forth…
It is in this environment we watched the two latest films by Alexander Sokurov, one of my favorite Russian film directors. I love his philosophical speculations, his extreme sensitivity and lyrical beauty, characteristic for all his masterpieces, no matter in what genre he works, irrespective of whether it is a documentary or a fiction film; especially in the second period of his activities, starting with The Second Circle (Krug vtoroi).
The first film we saw was Sokurov’s Elegy brilliantly shot in 2005, on the occasion of the 50th wedding anniversary of an exceptional couple of musicians, Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya: Elegy of Life: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya (Elegia zsizni: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, 2006). It was particularly interesting to see these very special people in the company of kings and queens. This temperamental, colorful genius cello-master Rostropovich, who came, as we learned, from a broadly-minded and well-educated bourgeois family, together with silent Galina, daughter of a drunkard father and a half-gypsy mother who has become a singer only by accident, but who, when she speaks, opens up an abundance of feelings and thoughts. To tell the truth, I was never a fan of Russian singing schools, especially soprano, it seems too tough for me, too aggressive. In vain the director repeatedly tells off-screen how gentle is Vishnevskaya’s voice, but I had never managed to notice it. Yet here, hearing her young voice on the rare early recordings and watching her inspired and soulful face in the archival fragments of old concerts or recordings of Shostakovich’s Katerina Izmailova, I have to admit she is really one of the outstanding singers of the second half of the 20th century. What a wonderful contrast there is in the film, when next to an always playful Rostropovich we see her almost like an ill melancholic empress, an opera diva on the background of the requisites of her old glory. A touching and unforgettable impression. (It is an irony of fate that Rostropovich passed away shortly after the film was finished).
And then there was the second film, Sokurov’s recently finished fiction production from the festival program, Alexandra (Aleksandra, 2007). You can imagine, how much I was waiting for it! Can Sokurov do what Pasolini succeeded to do: to create a figure equally great as the real actress-singer (Pasolini’s Maria Callas in Medea) by inviting Vishnevskaya to play the leading role in his new film? I shall say right away that it did not work out. At least in the milieu of the boiling and difficult life here, in Armenia, I did not see in this film any of the precious qualities, which were so characteristic of the director. Nothing remained from the sensitivity and refined-ness of the human soul neither in the representation of the main heroine, Alexandra, nor in the other heroes — soldiers, among whom she finds her beloved grandson.
Vishnevskaya’s acting does not carry an imprint of opera, it is not a simple illustration. And still, already, at first glance one cannot help noticing her wig, which never became ‘a part of her’. The same happened with Mari Töröcsik in the film of the prominent Hungarian director Károly Makk, Love (Szerelem) in 1970. Yet Vishnevskaia could not fill her character with real feelings, and the director could not help her with the monochrome coloring of the scenes, which was previously working so well in his films and yet here failed to lift up the story to the level of poetry or philosophy. Simple allegoric contrasts between the subtle human love and the noise of military mechanisms did not move inside the human souls; Vishnevskaya’s princess-like posture could not let this intimate human feeling inside, she could only imitate it. To put it even more straightforward, the very idea of the film appeared didactic, and the heroically uplifted figure of the grandmother-mother-motherland, walking among the soldiers, remained schematic, as much as the soldiers uniformly emerged as simple, smart, good-hearted and handsome Russian muzhiks. A fairy-tale, especially in contrast to the contradictory and merciless life around.