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.
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
A Mesmerizing, Seductive Trip Through a Fantasist's Russia
Western fascination with Russia -whether the land of the Tsars or the cruel empire of the madman Stalin - is one of our unending cultural fixations. Endlessly studied, painstakingly analyzed, mocked and admired - Russia is a massive, ongoing colossal story. An enigma that never yields its deepest secrets.
Director Aleksandr Sokurov is the voice of the anonymous inquisitor who accompanies nineteenth century French marquis Sergei Dreiden (Sergei Dontsov) on a breathtaking tour of the physical and spiritual Hermitage of St. Petersburg. He has made a groundbreaking, stunning film. Shot from a Steadycam in one continuous over hour-and-a-half stream, the film explores the treasures of one of the world's greatest museums. Equally, "Russian Ark" rambles, without regard for chronological order, through snatches of Russian and Soviet history, each short episode a fantastical peep into a wild, rich, often terrifying but always fascinating world.
In the nineteenth century European travellers, most often men (Charles Dickens, for example) and some women (Fanny Trollope for one) visited and wrote about the two untamed civilizations that beckoned to foreigners and promised adventure and intrigue: Russia and the United States. Count Dreiden, a not atypical Frenchman of haughty self-assurance and ample means, viewed Russians as boorish and their culture a gilt-splendored front for a nearly barbarous land. His book would not have been picked up by a publisher linked to the travel industry.
In "Russian Ark" Dreiden is more muted than he is in print but his unquestioning cynicism comes through as Sokurov captures the imagined journey in one building of a French nobleman through both his time and a future he questions without developing much understanding.
So we have both an Acoustaguide tour of a wonderful palace of culture and myriad treasures and snapshots of everyone from Catherine the Great to Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, including an adorable Anastasia, fated to be one of history's silly mysteries. Noblemen and contemporary sailors, bemedaled officers and bejeweled women, a cultured woman gallery guide and apparatchiks - they all fleet through and interact with the questioning but stolidly biased Frenchman.
How did Sokurov pull off a continuous take through over 4,200 feet of the Hermitage with a cast of many hundreds, gorgeously costumed, without a hitch? Unbelievable! That feat alone propels him into the Cinema Pantheon of Fame. At times I felt like I was drawn into the crowd, especially when they depart a dance to head for a fabulous banquet (the dance band is conducted by Valery Gergiev, the only famous - to Westerners - person in the film). And even though I knew from reviews that Sokurov pulled it off, I kept waiting for the seemingly inevitable "Cut!" following a miscue or stumble.
The hint of intrigue and menace that is so much part of Russia's past and present lurks behind an almost impressionistic front with scenes of one-dimensional gaiety almost but not entirely hiding a complex society. Sokurov teaches and teases simultaneously.
As visual splendor and directorial innovation this is one of the great films of our time. I look forward to owning it on DVD knowing that its magic can never be realized fully outside a theater.
Don't miss this one and see it more than once.
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