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Russian Ark

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Russian Ark

from Film Forum, 02/13/03

Russian Ark (Wellspring), a new film by Alexander Sokurov, is popping up here and there in arthouse theaters. If you have any interest in history, or if you like the idea of a stroll through a museum, this is a must-see. It's a rich, complex, and mystery-filled journey through Russian art and history.

Alternatively, if you like to see artists attempt to do what has never been done before, check this out: The entire 90 minute film was filmed in one continuous shot by cinematographer Tilman Buttner, without a single edit or cut, thanks to a portable and powerful hard drive for his digital video camera. Sokurov coordinates a cast of more than 2,000 people to move in and out of the museum rooms, portraying events both significant and incidental from Russia's past.

The museum on display is St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum. Our tour guides are ghostly figures who seem lost, temporarily suspended in some dimension of non-chronological time where they stumble into and out of chambers of this magnificent, labyrinthine museum. One guide is Sokurov himself, acting as a sort of narrator who has suffered a mysterious accident and fallen into this twilight-zone. His only companion is a gruff intellectual, the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), a French diplomat from the 19th century.

You'll catch glimpses of several significant figures, including Tsar Peter the Great and the Princess Anastasia. A wide array of famous paintings are featured, many of them depicting scenes from Scripture, and you half-expect Sister Wendy to step out and start expounding upon the virtues of their design. One moment we find ourselves in the midst of a masquerade party, and the next we're in a gallery where modern folks are musing over ancient paintings. The film's breathtaking final act carries you right into the middle of a spectacular formal state ball, the camera weaving its way through a dizzying mazurka.

The title, Russian Ark, refers to the museum as a treasure trove of Russian perspective preserved through the Communist Revolution. You also could look at it as a sort of Ark of the Covenant, the treasure chest protecting the important artifacts of a people forced to survive persecution and tribulation.

The film's one-take achievement tends to distract from whatever it is trying to say. I found myself holding my breath, waiting for something to go wrong as these crowds of actors follow their cues and play their parts flawlessly, without a stumble in the whole effort. It's remarkable, considering the director was given only one day in the museum to accomplish this feat. But repeated viewing, along with a review of Russian history, will no doubt prove this film to be a lasting commentary and a profoundly meditative work of art.

Movieguide's critic honors the film as an "extremely interesting … postmodern approach to restoring culture. It works in spite of the fact that there's no real drama, conflict or storyline. Russian Ark deserves the praise that it's receiving."

Mainstream critics are all impressed by the technical achievement. But some question the value of the experience.

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) writes, "I found myself in a reverie of thoughts and images, and sometimes, as my mind drifted to the barbarity of Stalin and the tragic destiny of Russia, the scenes of dancing became poignant and ironic." He then echoes, and answers, a criticism raised by Stanley Kauffmann: "If the film had been composed in the ordinary way out of separate shots, we would question its purpose. But it is not, and the effect of the unbroken flow of images … is uncanny. If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. Russian Ark spins a daydream made of centuries."