Svetlana Proskurina

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Russian Ark Review


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I don't know where to begin with a critique of Russian Ark. The most natural point is to mention that it's shot in one continuous take that lasts 90 minutes and includes hundreds -- maybe 1,000 or more -- actors. While Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov would have you believe this was a pioneering idea, Mike Figgis did this in Time Code two years earlier -- and he used four cameras, all running continuous photography and displayed in a split screen.

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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