Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Russian Ark (2002) ****

NR, 99 min.
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Writers: Aleksandr Sokurov, Anatoli Nikiforov, Boris Khaimsky, Svetlana Proskurina
Starring: Sergey Dreyden
Voice: Aleksandr Sokurov

“Russian Ark” is one of the most unique and visionary films ever made. It comes from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and uses the Hermitage as a surreal history lesson through Russia’s past 300 years. It depicts two men. One who is the audience’s point of view in the form of a spirit or a ghost that we only hear and never see. The other is a foreigner who has distinct ideas about what he thinks Russia is and a vast knowledge of its history and culture. They travel through the museum and through different time periods of Russia’s history. By the end the foreigner’s ideas have changed along with the audience’s own perception of Russia’s grand history.

When the film was released in 2002, much was made of the film’s visual style. The movie all appears to happen in one ever-moving take. One of its taglines boasts, “2000 Actors. 300 Years of Russian History. 33 Rooms at the Hermitage Museum. 3 Live Orchestras. 1 Single Continuous Shot.” It was the first film ever shot in uncompressed high definition, which is what allowed it to be the first ever truly uncut single shot film. It was filmed in a day, because the Hermitage would only shut down for one day for filming. The first three takes failed because of technical difficulties. The final film is the fourth take.

I have no doubt that had I a better understanding of Russian history; I would’ve enjoyed the film even more. It is a deeply spiritual film that is much more cerebral than it is literal. You’re not going to glean a great deal about the Russian history depicted here if you’re looking for facts and details, but I think that’s part of director Aleksandr Sokurov’s point. The details of Russia’s history make Russian achievements seem less than they are in Western and European eyes. It’s important to look at the spirit of Russia to fully understand it’s people’s history. If “Russian Ark” is anything, it is proof that there is more to Russia than the strong-arm image it likes to project.

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