There are art house films. And then there are Art House films. And then there is "Russian Ark' a film that takes place entirely inside one of the greatest art museums in the world and in the process challenges the very limits of the film medium itself. It is lavishly intellectual, compulsively historical, unencumbered by plot or logic and entirely in Russian with English subtitles. It may sound as impenetrable as Leningrad in winter, but in this season of awards and hyperbole, I am perfectly comfortable calling "Russian Ark" the most remarkable film of the year, and director Alexander Sokurov one incredibly cool cat.
Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman Buttner have made the camera the main character in Russian Ark. It assumes the persona of an invisible man who has materialized or awakened in a costumed era and proceeds to follow a group of gatecrashers into the side door of a European palace. It turns out to be the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, though when or why we are there is not as elaborately clear. The excitement seems to revolve around a royal ball about to take place. Or perhaps the theater group we encounter rehearsing a performance backstage. Then again, wasn't that Catherine the Great we just passed, excusing herself to go to the bathroom? And Peter the Great whipping one of his generals? And through yet another dim corridor into yet another salon, the young crowd is wearing blue jeans. Time - like everything else in this journey - is extremely fluid. Luckily our invisible man soon encounters a tall man dressed in black with features as sharp as an old wood block print. This man can see and hear our bewildered narrator, and like him appears to have stumbled through the same metaphysical gate. It is only courtesy of production notes that I learned this is The Marquis de Custine, a French travel writer who chronicled Russia in the early 19th Century. That puts him in an excellent position to fill in those blanks we may draw in our Russian history. But it's not so much a lesson the count, or Sokurov, is trying to impart. This is an exploration into the very soul of Russia, which just so happens to be housed piece by piece and ghost by ghost in the Hermitage. The journey ends as we file out with the crowd after an elegant royal ball hosted by Nicholas and Alexandra. And we know just enough Russian history to feel the weight of the moment. The party is over in more ways than one.
The remarkable part is that this 96-minute time trip was filmed in one uninterrupted take covering nearly a mile of the Hermitage. If you stop to think about it, the logistics of this production are staggering, making "Russian Ark" one of the most audacious stunts ever pulled off in film history. If you don't stop to think about it, you'll still have a passionate immersion in art, history and humanity that seems to flow like magic. That the incredible stunt served a greater artistic purpose puts Alexander Sokurov in a very small class of genuinely revolutionary filmmakers.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 2/12/03
Russia/Germany - 2002