- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

''I open my eyes and see nothing," remarks an unseen narrator at the decidedly murky start of "Russian Ark," a meditative evocation of imperial Russian art treasures playing exclusively through Thursday at the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center.
The latest tour de force of a notoriously idiosyncratic and contemplative Russian filmmaker named Alexander Sokurov, "Ark" equates the vast Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with Noah's ark and navigates its grounds in a time-traveling state of suspension meant to reconcile about 300 years of history with the present.
As a stylist, Mr. Sokurov consummates an impulse to do without film editing. As a patriot and moralist, he simultaneously broods about Russian history and culture.
As a rule, editing is an indispensable dynamic and expressive resource to directors. It will remain indispensable for most purposes, despite the example of Mr. Sokurov's contrarian curiosity, which presumes to tour the galleries, corridors and ballrooms of the Hermitage in a single, uninterrupted feature-length traveling shot.
A logistically grandiose video production with loftier pretensions than one is likely to find even on Public Broadcasting Service affiliates, "Russian Ark" was realized during one apparently wintry afternoon. The sole recording instrument was a high-definition camera mounted on a Steadicam rig and entrusted to German cinematographer Tilman Buettner, a virtuoso whose most conspicuous previous challenge was the frequently sprinting camerawork in Tom Tykwer's chase thriller "Run, Lola, Run."
Given the necessity to keep operating for about 90 consecutive minutes, Mr. Buettner was obliged to pace himself here on his saunter through a complex that includes the Winter Palace of the czars and several Hermitage buildings, which began as a repository for Catherine the Great's art collection in the 18th century. He takes in things at a stroll, while covering about a mile of floor space. The route is artfully booby-trapped and eventually crowded. At the outset, we encounter stray patrons or staff members, not to mention fleeting glimpses of Peter the Great (in a temper) and Catherine (looking for a lavatory).
Mr. Buettner begins in ill-lighted passageways and stairwells that lead to a private theater and then the art galleries, where perhaps half a dozen paintings and as many sculptures are examined with no more than cursory, long-distance attention. The galleries prove an early eyesore and disappointment. There's some lingering over a Van Dyck and a Rubens, but if the tour guides told me these galleries were full of Rob Petries and ham sandwiches, I'd be none the wiser. The abbreviated looks at paintings conspired with the dim lighting schemes to make me feel a little like that off-screen narrator who opens the film: I knew I had my eyes open but felt I was seeing next to nothing.
Ultimately, "Russian Ark" elects to justify itself as an eccentric costume spectacle. The settings don't really lighten up in a technical sense until the final reel, when Mr. Buettner begins approaching a gala event that press material identifies as the last royal ball of 1913. The historical re-enactments that seem fitful for an hour or so become systematic during the closing sequences.
There's a very pretty interlude in which the cameraman seems to scurry after a group of light-footed girls that includes the Princess Anastasia. After wandering into a vast reception room where dignitaries from Persia are being honored, the tour, now a succession of crowd scenes, concludes in a ballroom teeming with cheerful guests and sumptuous apparel. The guests and the apparel dance to mazurkas played on the spot by the Mariinsky State Theater Orchestra, somewhat anachronistically conducted by Valery Gergiev, who made a considerable impression in Washington a year ago while on tour with the Kirov Opera.
It is entertaining to see hundreds of extras dolled up while Mr. Buettner makes his rubbernecking way in and around the multitude. A few can't help sneaking glances at the camera. We overhear murmurs of conversation, but the closest thing to a "dramatic" thread is the sight of an officer who seems to have misplaced his date. Given the elastic ground rules of the presentation, it's possible that she slipped into a different time frame.
Our invisible narrator, presumably a mouthpiece for the filmmaker, has a visible but peculiar interlocutor in the displaced foreigner, a creepy, diminutive French diplomat from the 19th century who bears an alarming resemblance to the vampire Nosferatu. The posture, certainly, if not the mug.
While undeniably scenic and impressive in certain respects, "Russian Ark" fails to provide the sort of human interest that animates conventional narrative movies.
For example: the film version of "War and Peace" or Luchino Visconti's production of "The Leopard" or "The Godfather" or "Gone With the Wind." All of these use early party sequences to introduce central characters and anticipate conflicts that will sustain extended dramatization. Mr. Sokurov's equivalent scenes are belated festive events, capping a tour that never really hits an entertaining stride until it enters the ballroom.
The substitute for a dramatic protagonist and a plot in "Russian Ark" is Mr. Sokurov's musing about Russia's place in European history. You take it for granted that he's expressing himself through the unseen, muttering-under-his-breath narrator, a contemporary figure who doesn't mind contemplating the past but seems reluctant to linger there, in contrast to the French fop, who associates contentment with remaining at the ball forever.
Perhaps one of the unintended effects of "Russian Ark," at least on American audiences, will be to underline the fact that Old Europe has a way of looking old to a fault: a museum-piece civilization rather than a dynamic and contemporary one. Mr. Sokurov observes some magnificent settings and ornaments, and he probably hasn't even scratched the surface of the heritage preserved at the Hermitage.
I may have the polemical drift of "Russian Ark" all wrong, but the movie seems more intriguing as a reflection of one Russian's ambivalence than a landmark feat of art appreciation or pictorial virtuosity. As a practical matter, the art tour isn't remotely as informative or satisfying as it might be. The one-take pictorial stunt reminds you that working in bits and pieces has numerous advantages over photographing everything in one fell swoop.
However, there is something urgently haunting about Alexander Sokurov's evident inability to feel comfortable with the thought of Russia as essentially an ornament to bygone European glory.

TITLE: "Russian Ark"
RATING: No MPAA Rating (A semidocumentary format involving re-enactments from Russian imperial history; fleeting violence and comic vulgarity)
CREDITS: Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Screenplay and dialogue by Mr. Sokurov, Anatoly Nikiforov, Boris Khaimsky and Svetlana Proskurina. Cinematography by Tilman Buettner. Art direction by Yelena Zhukova and Natalia Kochergina. Costume design by Lidiya Kriukova, Tamara Seferyan and Maria Grishanova. Music by Sergey Yevtushenko. In Russian with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

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