In a medieval German town, Dr Faust (Zeiler) is struggling with the meaning of life and the idea of God. Frustrated by the limits of his knowledge, he embarks on a quest that takes him to a chattery old moneylender (Adasinskiy), who gets his autograph and then follows him everywhere, pushing him into a variety of situations. Along the way, Faust falls for the young Margarete (Dychauk), although his chances with her are somewhat lessened when he kills her brother (Bruckner). But the moneylender can help. For a price.
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Like the bright balloon of Hou Hsiao-hsien's upcoming Flight of the Red Balloon, Alexandra serves as an allegory for several things, but, as political as it might be, Sokurov's film comes off as a metaphor. Vishnevskaya, in a bold, hypnotic performance, is at once Mother Russia, the grandmother of every man on the base, the ghost of humanity, the regiment's inner compass and, yes, even herself. The soldiers are at times equally mesmerized and frustrated by her very existence, mostly as she complains about the overwhelming heat. Though the war between Chechnya and Russia in the early 1990s is felt, Sokurov's film feels oddly undated, and when the grandmother fires a gun, remarking on how easy it is, it sounds like the universal history of conflict psychology delivered in a thick, Leningrad accent.
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The real ambition in Russian Ark comes not from its technical challenges, but from its cast and setting. The film takes place entirely within the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg and comprises dozens of vignettes as the camera and its nameless narrator (Sergei Dontsov) flit from room to room on a journey through Russian history. The finale, which includes 300 pairs of dancers in a grand ballroom in the Hermitage, not to mention a full orchestra and countless spectators, is impressive to the point of being jaw-dropping. But the bulk of the film feels too much like filling time. Our hero (who bears a striking resemblance to Phyllis Diller) spends 20 minutes just figuring out what country he's in, and encounters with Catherine the Great, Anastasia, and other notable Russian luminaries are brief and cursory. (And where is Rasputin!?)
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