Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla
(Click on the images to see larger versions and credits.)
"Russian Ark" was filmed in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which the tsars called home from the time of Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The story concerns an unseen narrator (Leonid Mozgovoy) who is referred to in the credits as "the Spy." He wakes up after an accident of some sort and finds himself on the grounds of the Hermitage. He enters the palace with a group of revelers, and discovers that the year is 1814. He turns a corner and comes face to face with Peter the Great. How can that be?
And so it goes, traveling through the passageways, not in one time or another but phasing out, not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," although writer/director/producer Aleksandr Sokurov integrates this much more smoothly into his storyline.
The Spy is joined by a 19th century French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dontsov) who has sharp opinions on Russia and the Russian court, where he was stationed at length during his career. The womanizing Marquis helps the Spy navigate the hallways, past beautiful paintings (some of which are explored at length), through sumptuous balls and court functions, through intrigue and, occasionally, tragedy. This leads to a revelation as to what they are doing there; keep the title in mind at all times.
It's an ambitious project, with a cast of more than two thousand actors, with only a small portion of them credited, and three orchestras supplying background music.
Part of the movie's problem is its subject. The Hermitage is a natural venue for a movie, but it is a curse as well; you want to linger among the vast hallways, galleries and salons, examine the artwork. Of course, if the filmmakers were to do that, you'd have a 100-hour long movie.
Likewise, some of the characters that pass through the movie are fascinating, such as Catherine the Great (Mariya Kuznetsova), for whom Sokurov obviously held a great deal of affection. In her prime, she is a natural force, a storm that sweeps the Russian landscape and changes it forever. In the twilight of her life, she is a doughty old woman, trudging like a bulldog through the snow of the grounds, unmindful of obstacle or anything else, her steely gaze straight ahead. It's truly a charming portrayal.
At what point does a concept become a gimmick? The single shot idea could certainly degenerate into gimmickry; even Hitchcock had trouble with it, but it works here. The overall effect is of walking the halls of the Hermitage yourself, making the camera your ultimate point of view. Although the time changes are sometimes dizzying (you move from an elegant modern-day art gallery to a badly damaged room during the seige of Leningrad during World War II in one sequence) and disorienting, it also creates susceptibility in the viewer, for you literally don't know what's coming next or whom - or when - you'll encounter.
Being of Russian heritage myself (my mother's family hailed from the Ukraine), I found "Russian Ark's" commentary on Russian life (not always flattering, but always honest) scintillating. There is a Russian stoicism permeating the film; life happens and the filmmaker seems to shrug at tragedy and death with a "what can you do" kind of fatalism.
It was not so long ago these guys were an evil empire, but the Russian people have had to overcome a great deal of hardship the last few years in shrugging off the communist government they'd pioneered. I don't think "Russian Ark" could have been made in quite the same way under the communist regime, but it is hopeful that Russians are embracing their history - warts and all - instead of sweeping the unfavorable bits under the rug.
"Russian Ark" is a visually stunning, compelling film that takes us through Russian history and art, two areas largely unknown in this country. Even without the spectacle, it's worth seeing just for the opportunity to learn a little more about that enigmatic country. Go see it, and urge others to see it as well.
As a special note, I was privileged enough to catch this movie at the Enzian Theater in Orlando, Florida, one of only four theaters in the country that are screening this film in the digital format in which it was shot. If you have the opportunity to see it that way, I urge you to do it - it's worth the trouble.
AT HOME OR AT A THEATER?
See cast, credit and other details about "Russian Ark" at Internet Movie Data Base.