A 19th century French aristocrat, notorious for his scathing memoirs about life in Russia, travels through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and encounters historical figures from the last 200+ years.
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An unseen man regains consciousness, not knowing who or where he is. No one seems to be able to see him, except the mysterious man dressed in black. He eventually learns through their discussions that this man is a 19th century French aristocrat, who he coins the "European". This turn of events is unusual as the unseen man has a knowledge of the present day. The two quickly learn that they are in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the European who has a comprehensive knowledge of Russian history to his time. As the two travel through the palace and its grounds, they interact with people from various eras of Russian history, either through events that have happened at the palace or through the viewing of artifacts housed in the museum. Ultimately, the unseen man's desired journey is to move forward, with or without his European companion. Written by
In the history of cinema, it is the Russians who are generally credited with elevating film editing to a modern art form. It is ironic, and strangely fitting, therefore, that it should be the Russians who, almost a full century later, have now produced the first full-length feature film ever to be composed of a single unedited shot running uninterrupted from first moment to last (Hitchcock came close with `Rope,' but he did include a few `cuts' in the course of the film). Even Sergei Eisenstein, who, in films like `Potemkin' and `Ten Days That Shook the World' spent his career developing and demonstrating the power of editing, would, I dare say, be impressed by `Russian Ark,' a film every bit as innovative and challenging as those earlier seminal works.
For their bravura, awe-inspiring cinematic tour-de-force, director Alexander Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman Buttner take us into the famed Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, providing us with a grand tour not only of the opulent rooms and famous artwork contained therein, but of 300 years of Russian history as well, as various vignettes involving famous people (from Peter and Catherine the Great to Nicholas and Alexandra) and events are played out within the glorious gilded walls.
`Russian Ark' is a bold and audacious project that is the cinematic equivalent of a breathlessly performed high wire juggling act. We know that one false move on the part of the actors or the cameraman, one missed cue or accident of fate could bring the whole delicately poised enterprise crashing down around them. How often, one wonders, did a perfectionist like Sukorov have to resist the temptation to yell `Cut!' to his actors and crew? It's truly amazing to see just how beautifully planned and flawlessly executed the final product turns out to be, especially the ball sequence at the end which features hundreds of dancers and spectators who are set in beautifully choreographed and constantly whirling motion. What's most remarkable is how much of a participant the camera itself is in the proceedings. Not content to stand idly by and observe the scene like some passive onlooker, the camera moves right into the center of the action, gliding in and out of the crowds with utmost grace and precision. Visually, the film is stunning, with exquisite costumes and furnishings as far as the eye can see. Indeed, `Russian Ark' is, among other things, a veritable feast for the eyes, the likes of which we have rarely seen on film before.
`Russian Ark' does have something of a `plot,' involving a narrator whom we never see, a 21st Century filmmaker we assume it's Sukorov himself - who's found himself inexplicably caught in some type of time warp and magically transported to this strange spectral world. There's also a bizarre European `ghost' figure from the unspecified past who comments - and occasionally attempts to intrude on the actions taking place around him. But these two characters are of far less interest to the audience than the aural and visual delights of the film itself.
`Russian Ark' is a wonder to behold, for it is much more than just an `exercise,' a `gimmick,' or even an `antithesis' to Eisenstein; it is a vibrant work of art that challenges the limits of its medium and reminds us of just what it is about movies that we love so much.
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