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Los Angeles Times
January 10, 2003
'Russian Ark's' nonstop trip has dazzling views
Shot in one continuous take, the film is a technical marvel. But that doesn't detract from its beauty and its soul.
By Kenneth Turan, Times Staff Writer

"Russian Ark" is an astonishing technological feat, but what is even more remarkable is that the technology does not overwhelm the artistry. From the craft point of view, this film by Russian director Alexander Sokurov is all but unprecedented, but that hasn't gotten in the way of its beauty and its soul.

Simply put, "Russian Ark" is a feature-length film that was photographed in one take, a single uninterrupted shot lasting an unheard-of 87 minutes.

Durable director of photography and Steadicam operator Tilman Buttner, who filmed all the running in "Run, Lola, Run," used a high-definition digital video camera that fed images to a specially constructed hard drive before they were transferred to 35-millimeter film. After three brief false starts, "Russian Ark" was shot all the way through one time only, after which, not surprisingly, embraces were shared all around.

Sokurov has been quoted as saying he made "Russian Ark" because he was "sick and tired of editing," but in truth this film is a natural outgrowth of his earlier works -- moody, elegiac films that at their best (1996's "Mother and Son") use visuals to create powerfully emotional states of mind.

Sokurov has never been known for incisive dialogue and witty byplay ("Mother and Son" is nearly wordless) and parts of "Russian Ark" are undeniably a long slog. What saves this film is its setting, the absolutely stunning museum and former Czarist palace in St. Petersburg known as the Hermitage.

Preparations for "Russian Ark's" hour-and-a-half visit (which took four years to finance and organize) were understandably extensive. The 33 museum rooms that were utilized had to be carefully restored, and the film's 2,000 beautifully costumed actors and extras rehearsed for seven months before Tillman began his nearly mile-long Steadicam walk.

"Russian Ark" begins, ironically given the splendors that are to come, with its unseen narrator (Sokurov himself) saying, "I open my eyes and I see nothing." Some kind of accident has transported him, he knows not where, and the first thing he does see is a spectacular image: smartly uniformed Russian officers out of the long-gone past carry gorgeously costumed women out of their carriages and trudge through falling snow in search of an elaborate ball.

The narrator follows them into the Hermitage and almost immediately encounters another time traveler. He's a black-suited 19th-century French marquis and diplomat (Sergei Dreiden) who goes nameless in the film but whom Sokurov has identified as the Marquis de Custine, author of a celebrated De Toqueville-type book on Russia.

Though the snobbish, know-it-all marquis is an irritating character, the running dialogue he and the narrator have about the place of Russia and its culture in Europe are as close to the film gets to having a dramatic spine.

The marquis' spiteful remarks ("Russians are so talented at copying," "Russian music makes me break out in hives") and the narrator's attempts to counter them will probably be of interest largely to those already familiar with this long-running argument. What the film shows us, however, has a much greater appeal.

For as the two men wander through the Hermitage's seemingly endless series of rooms, they take a trip through Russian history as well.

Glimpsed in exquisitely crafted settings are Peter the Great twisting the ear of an underling, Catherine the Great taking delight in an elaborate opera staged just for her, Nicholas I and his court receiving emissaries from Persia, the czarina Alexandra fussing over her daughter Anastasia.

That these scenes are not dry recreations is a tribute to several things, starting with director Sokurov's great sense of beauty. There's hardly a scene that doesn't please the eye, and some of them -- for instance, a sequence of Catherine hurriedly retreating through a snowy courtyard -- are truly magical.

Also, Buttner's long walk with the Steadicam does not necessarily go in expected directions. The film's camerawork is never showy for its own sake but rather weaves and wanders very much the way an actual person would. The camera lingers, it hovers, it moves sinuously and unhurriedly, managing to turn a highly organized maneuver into something that feels natural and spontaneous.

What "Russian Ark" also does is enable the viewer to reconsider what cinema means, to rediscover an older, more basic way of using the camera, a way that, ironically enough, fell from favor thanks to an earlier Russian generation of directors such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Kuleshov who raised rapid editing to an art form. Just as the Hermitage is finally viewed as a floating ark preserving Russia's history and culture, so film itself comes across as a river of dreams, seamless and free-flowing.

All of this comes together in the film's staggering final scene, a nearly 10-minute look at a 1913 ball in the Great Nicholas Hall (complete with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra), the last ball the Hermitage was in fact to hold.

This scene, which includes a leisurely following of the crowds as they leave when the music is over, is surprisingly moving, in part because we can't help but be aware that the soldiers we're seeing, "the flower of the officer corps" as someone puts it, will likely meet death soon in either World War I or the revolution.

More than that, the ball is an emotional experience because the unbroken way it is shot has the wherewithal to take us back in time, to allow us to actually live in the past. The ability to unhurriedly wander through the ballroom just as we would if we were on the premises makes the event seem not a recreation but real.

As this particular ship sails on and on, it feels more and more of a privilege to be on board.

'Russian Ark'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
Sergei Dreiden ... The Marquis
Maria Kuznetsova ... Catherine the Great
Released by Wellspring Media. Director Alexander Sokurov. Producers Andrey Deryabin, Jens Meurer, Karsten Stoter. Screenplay Anatoly Nikiforov, Boris Khaimsky, Alexander Sokurov. Cinematographer Tilman Buttner. Costumes Lidiya Kriukova, Tamara Seferyan, Maria Grishanova. Music Sergey Yevtushenko. Art directors Yelena Zhukova, Natalia Kochergina. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
At the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 478-6379.

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