No one familiar with the severe, intellectual films of helmer Alexander Sokurov can imagine the dazzling opulence that explodes in “Russian Ark,” a dreamlike journey through Russian and European culture over the last three centuries that will win this difficult director festival kudos and much larger audiences. They will still be a cultivated lot, however, the kind willing to spend an hour and a half of imaginative time inside St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, where the action takes place. Critical opinion, which was divided by the patience-straining slowness of his earlier work up to “Mother and Son” and the pseudo-history of a film like “Moloch,” is likely to be much more unified and should help the film over an initial distribution hump.
The Russian-German co-prod seems destined to go down in film history as a technical tour de force. Not only is it the first feature length film to be shot in one single take using an HD digital video camera suspended on a steadicam, but it performs this feat moving through some 33 different rooms inside the Hermitage, in the midst of more than 2,000 extras in full historical costume.
In lesser hands a single 90-minute take would undoubtedly become just an irritating gimmick; here, miraculously, it gives the film a magical visual style, recalling the way we glide through dreams and videogames.
Pic’s astounding production values make their own comment on the role that high culture — architecture, painting, sculpture, theater and music — has played in European history. As one character remarks, Peter the Great may have been a tyrant, but he taught Russians how to enjoy themselves.
Finding pleasure in art is what “Russian Ark” is all about. A present-day narrator (never seen in the film) finds himself suddenly transported back to the Winter Palace (today’s Hermitage) in the early 1700s. The place is filled with courtiers and fine ladies, uniformed officers and members of court. He soon joins forces with a French marquis (Sergei Dreiden), a 19th century diplomat who is also displaced in time.
Unlike the narrator, however, he is perfectly visible to the people around him and feels at ease interacting with them. He is guided through the dazzling painting and sculpture collection by a blind woman, a great art connoisseur. He wanders through the emperor’s official reception for the Persian ambassador, and dances the mazurka with noble dames in the Great Nicholas Hall, to the music of a symphony orchestra (conducted by Valeri Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra.)
The narrator and marquis have brief, eerie encounters with historical personages like Catherine the Great and Nicholas & Alexandra and their children. Sokurov keeps the tone light and witty, lead by the Marquis’s worldly banter and one-liners about culture.
A note of sadness also creeps in along with the memory of the great wars of the 20th century and the siege that cost the city (then known as Leningrad) 1 million deaths. Yet Russian culture survived even this. Pic concludes with the reflection that “we’re destined to sail along forever, to live forever.”
As they wander through the vast labyrinth of corridors, theaters and ballrooms, quietly underscored by Sergei Yevtushenko’s music, the camera performs a nonstop dance beside them, setting a brisk, sometimes dizzy pace. Apart from some longeurs in the pic’s first half, the rhythm established by the long take, obviously untouchable by any kind of editing, is surprisingly strong.
East German steadicam operator Tilman Buttner (“Run, Lola, Run”) earns a place in the Cinematographers’ Hall of Fame for his remarkable physical effort and stunning aesthetic results.
Vaunting enough pomp and pageantry (and extras) to remake “War and Peace,” the pic owes a huge debt to production designers Yelena Zhukova and Natalia Kochergina and costume designers Lidiya Kriukova, Tamara Seferyan and Maria Grishanova.