Russian Ark’s filmmaker-as-camera protagonist is inexplicably dropped inside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and with a catty European diplomat as guide, he travels from room to room and experiences 300 years of Russian history. Stedicam expert Tilman Buttner (Run Lola Run) bears the brunt of Aleksandr Sokurov’s rigorous yet exhilarating exercise: For 96 minutes, Buttner keeps the camera going, effortlessly weaving his way through the film’s elaborate mise-en-scène. In one room, Catherine the Great stages a rehearsal of one of her plays. In the next, Valery Gergiev conducts his orchestra at the Great Royal Ball of 1913. Russian Ark catalogs and sorts through the artifice of Russian history, calling attention to itself as a ritual of performance art. Sokurov lingers on the many paintings that hang on the walls of the Hermitage, challenging notions of nationalism, artistic representation, subjectivity, and naturalism. The Hermitage-as-ark guards Russian history from the rest of the world at the risk of alienating its own people; indeed, the museum’s modern-day gawkers are incapable of reading any given oil painting without cultural or political context. The film’s elitist European takes jabs at the Russian appropriation of art and scoffs at a group of men so disconnected from history that they are lost to metaphors. When Catherine needs to urinate, she discovers that the many doors around her are locked. In effect, the edges of Sokurov’s camera become the very walls of the ark. Midway through the film, the camera follows a now-crippled Catherine onto the snowy exterior of the Hermitage. With this sad yet exhilarating rhetorical shift, Sokurov contemplates freedom from the ark. Even sadder is when the European spy seduces the faceless filmmaker back into the building. The claustrophobic journey through the Hermitage continues and there is a sense that it could go on forever. The film’s heady yet far from impenetrable theory suggests that Russians take comfort in their closed-off sense of nationalism. Just as strong then as the Hermitage’s smell of antiquity is the possibility of liberation. In the end, Russian Ark makes for a fascinating if unlikely ghost story.
- 96 min
- Aleksandr Sokurov
- Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina, Aleksandr Sokurov
- Sergei Donstov, Mariya Kuzentsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, David Giorgobiani, Aleksandr Chaban, Maksim Sergeyev, Anna Aleksakhina, Konstantin Anisimov, Aleksei Barabash, Vladimir Baranov
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