(2002) Historical Fantasy (Wellspring) Leonid Mozgovoy, Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Maksim Sergeyev, Natalya Nikulenko, Aleksandr Chaban, Vladimir Baranov, Anna Aleksakhina, Lev Yeliseyev, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Ospienko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova, Svetlana Gaytan. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
Russian Ark was filmed in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which the tsars called home from the time of Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also produced in one long shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope and as viewers travel the corridors among the magnificent artworks of the Hermitage, they meet figures from history who lived and worked there.
The story concerns an unseen narrator (Mozgovoy) who is referred to in the credits as “The Spy.” He wakes up after an accident of some sort and finds himself on the grounds of the Hermitage. He enters the palace with a group of revelers, and discovers that the year is 1814. He turns a corner and comes face to face with Peter the Great (Sergeyev). How can that be?
And so it goes, traveling through the passageways, not in one time or another but phasing out, not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, although writer/director/producer Sokurov integrates this much more smoothly into his storyline than Vonnegut did.
The Spy is joined by a 19th century French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine (Dontsov) who has sharp opinions on Russia and the Russian court, where he was stationed at length during his career. The womanizing Marquis helps the Spy navigate the hallways, past beautiful paintings (some of which are explored at length), through sumptuous balls and court functions, through intrigue and, occasionally, tragedy. This leads to a revelation as to what they are doing there; keep the title in mind at all times.
It’s an ambitious project, with a cast of more than two thousand actors, with only a small portion of them credited, and three orchestras supplying background music. Part of the movie’s problem is its subject. The Hermitage is a natural venue for a movie, but it is a curse as well; you want to linger among the vast hallways, galleries and salons, examine the artwork. Of course, if the filmmakers were to do that, you’d have a 100-hour long movie.
Likewise, some of the characters that pass through the movie are fascinating, such as Catherine the Great (Kuznetsova), for whom Sokurov obviously held a great deal of affection. In her prime, she is a natural force, a storm that sweeps the Russian landscape and changes it forever. In the twilight of her life, she is a doughty old woman, trudging like a bulldog through the snow of the grounds, unmindful of obstacle or anything else, her steely gaze straight ahead. It’s truly a charming portrayal.
At what point does a concept become a gimmick? The single shot idea could certainly degenerate into gimmickry; even Hitchcock had trouble with it, but it works here. The overall effect is of walking the halls of the Hermitage yourself, making the camera your ultimate point of view. Although the time changes are sometimes dizzying (you move from an elegant modern-day art gallery to a badly damaged room during the siege of Leningrad during World War II in one sequence) and disorienting, it also creates susceptibility in the viewer, for you literally don’t know what’s coming next or whom – or when – you’ll encounter.
Being of Russian heritage myself (my mother’s family hailed from the Ukraine), I found Russian Ark’s commentary on Russian life not always flattering, but always honest and completely scintillating. There is a Russian stoicism permeating the film; life happens and the filmmaker seems to shrug at tragedy and death with a “what can you do” kind of fatalism.
It was not so long before this was made that these guys were an evil empire, but the Russian people have had to overcome a great deal of hardship during those transitional years in shrugging off the communist government they’d pioneered. I don’t think Russian Ark could have been made in quite the same way under the communist regime, but it is hopeful that Russians are embracing their history – warts and all – instead of sweeping the unfavorable bits under the rug.
Russian Ark is a visually stunning, compelling film that takes us through Russian history and art, two areas largely unknown in this country. Even without the spectacle, it’s worth seeing just for the opportunity to learn a little more about that enigmatic country. You should seek this out – it is one of the best movies of the last decade and remains to this day one of the highest grossing Russian-made films in the United States.
WHY RENT THIS: The magnificent artwork and corridors of the Hermitage. Novel concept. Epic sweep of Russian history.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing in places.
FAMILY MATTERS: A few eerie moments.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The entire film was shot in one continuous shot which was choreographed and pre-planned to the very last detail. What you see is the third take – there were two flubbed attempts that thankfully occurred in the first ten minutes. Oh, and the Marquis de Custine was an actual historical figure.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a 48 minute documentary feature on the history of the Hermitage, as well as 43 minute making-of featurette that details all of the issues and preplanning of this massive undertaken, which included three different orchestras, almost 2000 actors and 33 different rooms of the museum all filmed in one continuous shot.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.7M on an unknown production budget; despite the epic scope of the film, I believe that it was profitable in the end.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is like nothing else that’s come before or since.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: My Country, My Country