Russian Ark

Acclaimed Russian director Alexander Sokurov's surprisingly accessible film is both a grand tour through 300 hundred years of Russian cultural identity and a stunning technical achievement: The entire 96-minute film consists of a single, unedited Steadicam shot. The setting is St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum, once the Winter Palace of Peter the Great,...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Acclaimed Russian director Alexander Sokurov's surprisingly accessible film is both a grand tour through 300 hundred years of Russian cultural identity and a stunning technical achievement: The entire 96-minute film consists of a single, unedited Steadicam shot. The setting is St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum, once the Winter Palace of Peter the Great, later a museum under Catherine the Great and forever the jewel of Russian culture. It's also a repository of some of Europe's greatest masterpieces, and can be read as a symbol of the cultural conflict at the heart of Russian identity. Our unseen narrator (voiced by Sokurov himself) awakens after some sort of accident to find himself back in Tsarist Russia. Confused, he joins a group of giddy partygoers as they sneak into the Hermitage through a series of passageways. Our narrator appears to be invisible to everyone except a 19th-century Frenchman (Sergey Dreiden), a fellow time traveler he soon encounters. Though never named, this visitor appears to be the Marquis De Custine, a diplomat who once published the highly critical Letters From Russia. As the camera glides through the magnificent halls of the Hermitage, the Marquis offers his pointed — and entirely European — perspective on what he sees. Around each corner, a different tableau unfolds, and it soon becomes clear that this is not only a tour through a space hung with priceless Rembrants, El Grecos and Van Dycks, but through time as well. Through a window, we see Peter the Great (Maxim Sergeyev) in a rage; in a small theater, Catherine the Great (Maria Kuznetsova) watches a performance of a play; in a grand hall, Nicholas II awaits the apology of the Persian ambassador; nearby, the Romanovs sit down to what might be one of their final meals. It's amazing that Sokurov and his superhuman camera operator, RUN LOLA RUN's Tilman Buttner (who manned the Steadicam the entire length of the shot), pulled this off at all. It couldn't have been made with a conventional camera — the largest magazines only hold some 10 minutes of film — and even the latest HD video technology proved inadequate. A brand-new hard drive, capable of recording up to 100 minutes of uncompressed images, needed to be developed before this amazing feat of timing and coordination could be attempted. The final effect, particularly the climactic ballroom sequence, is astonishing — a haunting impression of the vast synchronicity of unbroken time that must surely stand as one of the great achievements in the development of the movie medium. (In Russian, with English subtitles.)

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Acclaimed Russian director Alexander Sokurov's surprisingly accessible film is both a grand tour through 300 hundred years of Russian cultural identity and a stunning technical achievement: The entire 96-minute film consists of a single, unedited Steadicam… (more)

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