Russian Ark

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Russian Ark

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Russian Ark

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Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov began working in the Soviet era, experimenting in varied media and movie lengths to tell intimate stories set against the sweep of history. Russian Ark may be his boldest feat yet. Shot on high-definition digital video, the movie consists of one unbroken take, assuming the point of view of a partly invisible, time-traveling visitor to St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum. "The spy" (voiced by Leonid Mozgovoy) walks the halls while a black-clad French diplomat (played by Sergei Dreiden) comments snidely on Russian history, the major events of which unfold before their eyes. Each room of The Hermitage doubles as a staging area for ceremonies, performances, and balls, enlivened by glimpses of Pushkin, Catherine The Great, and the Romanovs. But Russian Ark isn't really a primer on the past. In fact, those not versed in Euro-lore may find it difficult to follow, though not impossible to understand: Sokurov's commanding sense of mood and pace establishes Russian Ark as a philosophical elegy, and a feeling of sorrowful nostalgia penetrates the particulars of the events. After the opening credits, Mozgovoy speculates over a black screen that there's been "some sort of accident," and then the narrator/eyes-of-the-audience sees extravagantly dressed figures come into focus, at which point he happens on the irascible Dreiden, who immediately establishes his derision. As they tour the museum, Dreiden softens. He tells amusing stories about Peter The Great, and tries to impress passing women with his opinions about the lack of originality in Russian painting. If nothing else, Russian Ark is like spending an hour and a half at a top-notch museum, and Sokurov's depiction of art enthusiasts as early versions of the fussy film-geek type makes the significance of his museum-going clear. By the time the journey culminates with the Great Royal Ball of 1913—highlighted by a stunning shot of corridors and staircases filled with nearly 1,000 extras, making the amount of rehearsal required to shoot the movie in real time all the more impressive—a choked-up Dreiden admits that he's not ready to leave the opulence behind, acknowledging that "Europeans are democrats who mourn the monarchy." Sokurov does stack his deck by hewing to Russia's glory days, save for one brief stop in a chilly, war-ravaged wing in which the spy and the diplomat don't care to dwell. But Russian Ark is meant to be a reverie. "We are free... dreaming," Dreiden insists at one point, justifying his wish to adhere to the beautiful. When Russian Ark ends, it's like waking up to a colder, darker world.

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