Russian Ark – Русский ковчег Movie Review

The full movie may be watched here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B73twU6KjWHvT3Z4WnRuQWFsM28/view

Works on the google chrome browser, not sure about other browsers. Or you may download the entire 1080p version with English subtitles (by clicking on the upper right hand corner, down arrow). A cinematic masterpiece!

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS; All of Russian History, in One Glittery, Unbroken Take

Published: September 28, 2002

”Russian Ark” is a magnificent conjuring act, an eerie historical mirage evoked in a single sweeping wave of the hand by Alexander Sokurov. The 96-minute film, shot in high-definition video in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg, consists of one continuous, uninterrupted take. Thanks to recent technological innovation, it is the longest unbroken shot in the history of film. As the Steadicam operated by Tilman Büttner (the German cinematographer of ”Run Lola Run”) floats through the museum’s galleries and rooms, a cast of 2,000 actors and extras act out random, whimsical moments of Russian imperial history that dissolve into one other like chapters of a dream.

Mr. Sokurov, who has always been drawn to historical subjects, has said that he wanted to capture ”the flow of time” in a pure cinematic language that suggests ”a single breath.” And that’s what ”Russian Ark” accomplishes as it drops in on Russian monarchs from Peter the Great to Nicholas II and catches them living their lives unaware that they’re being observed. These keyhole flashes from the past evoke a sense of history that is at once intimate and distanced, and ultimately sad: so much life, so much beauty, swallowed in the mists of time.

”Russian Ark” is a ghost story set in the Hermitage, the museum that is the pride of St. Petersburg and the repository — the ark, if you will — of more Russian history and culture than any other place. Among its components are the Winter Palace (the former residence of the Russian czars) and sections devoted to Russian history and to the life and work of Alexander Pushkin. It also houses more than three million artifacts, including world-class collections of painting, sculptures, prints, drawings and archaeological finds.

The film is narrated in a thoughtful murmur by a contemporary artist who awakens to find himself lost in the 1800’s amid a jostling crowd pouring through a side entrance of the Hermitage. As he follows the flow, he catches sight of another out-of-place figure, the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), a frizzy-haired 19th-century French diplomat dressed in black and the only person to acknowledge his presence. As the two strays wander through the galleries, they carry on a sporadic dialogue in which the Frenchman continually snipes at Russian culture for being pretentious, overly theatrical and more imitative of Europe than truly European.

Along the way they chance on upon Peter the Great beating one of his generals, and Catherine the Great breaking away from a rehearsal of her own play to search frantically for a place to relieve herself. The Marquis encounters the present-day director of the museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and complains to him about the odor of formaldehyde. The Marquis, who has an uncanny sense of smell, also enjoys pressing his nose to an epic canvas to savor the smell of pigment. Later, he is shown around a gallery by a blind ”angel” who discourses on the iconography of a Van Dyck painting and on the artist’s relationship with Rubens.

In another, darker time warp, the Marquis strays through the wrong door and finds himself in a chilly outdoor workshop amid drifting snow, and listens dumbfounded to a description of 20th-century horrors that have yet to take place. The companions stray into an interminable ceremony in which the grandson of the Persian Shah, flanked by emissaries, formally apologizes to Nicholas I for the murder of Russian diplomats in Tehran.

The movie, which the New York Film Festival is showing this afternoon at Alice Tully Hall (it is to open commercially in December), culminates in what may well be the ne plus ultra of period cinematic pomp: a re-creation of the last great royal ball held at the Hermitage under Czar Nicholas II in 1913, shortly before the Bolshevik revolution. To the strains of Glinka, hundreds of glitteringly attired courtiers dance the mazurka to a live symphony orchestra (conducted by Valery Gergiev), then make their way down the grand staircase. By this time, the Marquis’s snobbery has dissipated, and when the time comes to leave, he is so enchanted that he chooses to remain in this opulent dreamland.

This ultimate display of wealth and privilege is so heady it would be easy to infer that Mr. Sokurov harbors a lingering nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary era of czars and serfs. But this extraordinary sequence even more powerfully evokes the historical blindness of an entitled elite blissfully oblivious to the fact that it is standing in quicksand that is about to give.

RUSSIAN ARK

Directed by Alexander Sokurov; written (in Russian, with English subtitles) by Anatoly Nikiforov and Mr. Sokurov; director of photography, Tilman Büttner; music by Sergey Yevtuschenko; production designers, Yelena Zhukova and Natalia Kochergina; produced by Andrey Deryabin, Jens Meurer and Karsten Stöter; released by Wellspring. Running time: 96 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown with a 15-minute short, Michael Bates’s ”Projectionist” today at 3 p.m. at Alice Tully Hall, 165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, as part of the 40th New York Film Festival.

WITH: Sergey Dreiden (the Marquis), Maria Kuznetsova (Catherine the Great), Leonid Mozgovoy (the Spy), Mikhail Piotrovsky (himself) and David Giorgobiani (Orbeli).

 

 

Very few scenes in ANY movie are scenes that “in themselves” have a self-contained point; the whole point of a “scene” is that it is part of a larger whole.
And the ‘larger whole’ of Russian Ark is not to self-aggrandize/spotlight the director, but rather is (at least) two-fold:
#1 — a presentation of the shift of moods and attitudes over 300 years of Russian history (particularly with regard to Russia’s self-image in relation to Europe)
#2 — a meditation on the nature of history itself, specifically as a *temporal* process.

Even had it used typical editing techniques, the film would have presented theme #1 very powerfully — in large part due to the dialogue between the two time travellers, to their semi-invisibility, and to the film’s great insight that anyone who studies history is (just like those two men) a kind of disoriented time traveller.

Regarding theme #2 — history and temporality — the form and the content of the film converge perfectly. For, the form of the film (the single continuous take) is essential for communicating the content of the film’s ideas on the nature of history: history in its reality is not what most history books present it to be, namely, a series of isolated incidents marked by definite cuts in between (cuts made by some invisible authorial mind). Rather, the course of human history is a continuous flow experienced from a first-person perspective and with no edits, a flow which (as good historians know) is extremely difficult to cut into distinct periods without great oversimplification.

Finally, as the form of the film reveals, especially in the brilliant closing scenes, we the observers are unavoidably *a part* of this continuous flow of history, simply as human beings. We are ourselves floating in the current of history (in our Arks), with no director to order our journey with edits and cuts, and without a clear sense of where we’re going or how to make sense of it all. We humans make history but history also makes us, and trying to grasp the details of what this means is — as it was for the time travellers floating from room to room and century to century — a task both disorienting and exhilarating.

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