ALEXANDRA — *** — Galina Vishnevskaya, Vasily Shevtsov; with English subtitles (Eastern European dialects); not rated, probable PG-13 (profanity, violence); see Page W2 for theaters

"Alexandra" waits nearly 20 minutes before it really offers audiences a substantive clue as to what the film is about.

Up until that point, it seems to be a bizarre comedy in which a series of transport vehicles not only carry soldiers to the front lines of a Chechen conflict, they also transport an elderly Russian grandmother there as well.

The deliberate quirkiness, absurdity and perplexing nature of the situations shown early on in the movie may prove a little frustrating for some audiences used to more straightforward storytelling.

Those who are patient will be rewarded, though. It's a well-acted piece that finds a unique way to discuss the fortunes of soldiers and their families during times of war.

By the way, the title character really is a grandmother. Eightysomething Russian performer Galina Vishnevskaya plays Alexandra, who has come to an army encampment to check up on her soldier grandson, Denis (Vasily Shevtsov).

She has received permission to visit him there, though she's almost being treated like some sort of dignitary or a celebrity by all of Denis' fellow soldiers.

So, she's also given all sorts of access and freedom, which she abuses. At one point Alexandra simply wanders off behind enemy lines, into the heart of Chechen lands.

But rather than being endangered, the mischievous but also rather kind-hearted woman actually befriends her counterpart (Raisa Gichaeva) who's on the other side.

Again, screenwriter/director Aleksandr Sokurov (2002's "Russian Ark") lets the story reveal itself slowly. And throughout the tone is a little wry and ironic, though things are treated with a straight face when they need to be.

But Vishnevskaya, a veteran opera singer and actress, is very likable as Alexandra, and the seeming, anti-war messages featured in the film are fairly subtle.

"Alexandra" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for some scattered strong profanity and brief war violence (mostly overheard or implied). Running time: 91 minutes.

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