A risk-taking director with spiritual curiosity

Some say cinema is dead or dying. Others say it's just having a bad decade or two.

But adventurous viewers know the art of motion pictures is as healthy as it's ever been, if you search hard enough to find the gems it produces.

A growing number of these seekers are discovering Alexander Sokurov, who's becoming one of the world's most beloved and influential filmmakers.

His reputation is taking a new leap with a major retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art this month. What makes Sokurov special is his intelligence, sensitivity, and - rarer still in the movie world - spiritual curiosity.

It's impossible to name a single ideology or belief system that underpins his ideas. But his major works reveal an ongoing quest for a deeper understanding of the human condition.

This doesn't mean his dramas have the manufactured uplift of simplistic "feel good" movies. Sokurov focuses on characters who face physical and psychological challenges of the most daunting kinds, using their anguishes and anxieties to lead them - and us - toward new perspectives on life, love, and death.

Sokurov began his career in the 1980s with comparatively conventional dramas like "Save and Protect," an energetic adaptation of "Madame Bovary," and "Days of the Eclipse," the strikingly filmed story of a young physician trying to save lives - and his own sanity - in a remote outpost.

Many filmmakers become more commercial as they master screen storytelling, but Sokurov has gone the other way, becoming more innovative, year by year. This reflects the influence of his mentor, the late Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who made daring masterpieces like the historical drama "Andrei Rublev" and the science-fiction epic "Solaris."

Sokurov made a decisive turn in 1990 with "The Second Circle," about a man who meditates on the meaning of death while preparing his father's funeral. Rejecting melodramatic emotion, it signaled his arrival as a fully mature artist.

He's grown even bolder in subsequent years. "Stone," made in 1992, centers on a museum guard and a mysterious stranger whose motives and identity remain enigmatically unclear. "Whispering Pages," made in 1993 and inspired by "Crime and Punishment," takes a similarly dreamlike approach to unsettling events experienced by a young urban man. Both movies use distorting lenses, disorienting camera work, and deliberately murky sound tracks to heighten their hallucinatory effect.

How did such openly experimental works get produced in Russia's newly capital-conscious film industry? Thinking about this question - which defies easy answers - lends even more fascination to the films.

Sokurov's breakthrough to American spectators came with "Mother and Son" in 1997. There's almost no narrative in this mostly wordless portrait of a young man spending a few last hours with his dying mother. Lending it transfixing power - if less cinematic interest than "Stone" and "Whispering Pages" have - is the painterly beauty Sokurov brings to every frame.

In the past three years, Sokurov has begun a series of historical portrait films, consisting so far of "Moloch," an expressionistic visit with Adolf Hitler, and "Taurus," about Joseph Stalin in his dying days. Both find the filmmaker in fine creative form, although they've gotten mixed responses from critics.

The largest gap in the Museum of Modern Art show is its omission of two great '90s videos, "Spiritual Voices" and "Confession," documentaries about men living dangerous lives in crushing environments. Both blur the boundaries between art and life as they flood the viewer's senses with about five hours (apiece) of passionately crafted, rigorously pared-down images.

This aside, the retrospective is a superb tribute to a cinematic giant whose influence on filmmakers is growing.

Some of his major works are also available on home video, including "The Second Circle" and "Mother and Son."

• 'Alexander Sokurov: A Retrospective' continues at MoMA through Feb. 21.

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