There is a genius to the experimental and utterly surreal historical epic "Russian Ark" that has nothing to do with the fact that it was shot in one uninterrupted, mind-boggling 93-minute take that passes dreamlike through three centuries of Russia's royal past.
If this movie had been made traditionally -- several takes of every scene edited together with close-ups, two-shots, etc. -- its story would still be enthralling as it follows a traveler (or is he a ghost?) set adrift in time inside the breathtakingly grand Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, the former Winter Palace of the czars.
As writer-director Alexander Sokurov ("Mother and Son") turns you, the viewer, into this traveler with psychologically seamless first-person cinematography (by Tilman Buttner, "Run Lola Run"), the film becomes almost literally transporting, bringing alive the courts of bygone Catherines and Nicholases as it whisks you from room to room and era to era.
Guided by an eccentric French stranger (Sergey Dreiden), a similarly limboed 19th century diplomat who is able to interact with the people of the various centuries in a way the traveler cannot, we're witness to incredibly tangible moments of history -- some random, some pivotal -- as we pass through the opulent halls and ballrooms of the vast palace.
Leaving an 18th century party through a dark staircase leads to an ornate private theater where a play is being performed for Catherine I, 100 years before. The traveler and the stranger later observe silently as Peter the Great belittles a subservient courtier, and subsequently debate history's perception of the man as a tyrant. They're surprised to pass into the present momentarily and discuss the museum's magnificent collection with modern patrons before opening a door and finding themselves in the middle of a the Nazi siege on Leningrad (which was the city's name during the Soviet era).
And on it goes, in one fluid steadycam shot without a single edit, through a dozen eras of Russian history; through scores of magnificent rooms with decorated ceilings and marble walls; through hundreds upon hundreds of lavishly costumed extras; and through curious philosophical discussions between the two unwitting companions about Russian history and culture.
The logistical feats of this movie are unprecedented -- imagine the planning involved in having a 150-room museum filled with hundreds of people in period costume (including four live orchestras), all of whom must be in precisely the right places at the right times because there can be no second take. But "Russian Ark" is so vivid and spellbinding that such rational thoughts will be the farthest thing from your mind as you're drawn into the eras and events that unfold before your eyes.
The history is fascinating, whether you're familiar with Russia's past or not (although I'm sure the more one knows, the better it gets), and the journey of its characters as they slip between epochs is engrossingly bizarre.
The performance of Dreiden as the aged, unruly-haired and slightly Puckish stranger -- an eerily calm oddity in a long, cap-sleeved winter coat who keeps his arms folded formally behind his back except when struck with the impulse to be flamboyantly theatrical -- is strange enough to keep the traveler (and by extension us filmgoers) off balance. But he is congruent enough in the movie's living history to occasionally merge into a period party crowd, for example, leaving us momentarily lost in time.
But more importantly, Sokurov's camera behaves exactly as any of us might if we found ourselves invisibly enveloped in another time and place. Fascinated by every detail, sometimes we the traveler become distracted, staring at the tense hands of a royal guard. Other times we watch in amazed bewilderment as a museum employee backs away from us in a startled manner. What does he see? During a 19th Century ball, we float through the dancers, then move across the room to see the view from the orchestra stage (providing the film's one visual mistake for the detail-oriented -- a musician wearing modern glasses).
"Russian Ark" may be an astonishing achievement in filmmaking, but what makes it unforgettable is Sokurov's ability to draw us so deeply into the vibrant worlds he conjures -- without any cinematic slight of hand -- that the technical aspects of the picture become invisible and forgotten.
Quite simply, I've never seen -- or even imagined -- anything like it. Do not miss this movie.
Run time: 99 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 19th April 2003
Box Office USA: $37.4k
Distributed by: Wellspring Media
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 88 Rotten: 11
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Also starring: Sergey Dreiden, Maria Kuznetsova, Vladimir Baranov, Anna Aleksakhina, Aleksandr Chaban, David Giorgobiani, Mikhail Piotrovsky, Alexander Chaban, Natalya Nikulenko, Lev Yeliseyev, Svetlana Svirko, Boris Smolkin, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Osipenko, Yuli Zhurin, Artem Strelnikov
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