Uninterrupted `Russian Ark' has staying power

Less editing is cut above through Hermitage lens

March 07, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The title refers to Noah's ark. This movie views the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the former winter palace of the czars, as the vehicle for the preservation of Russia's artistic soul. But one way to enjoy this 96-minute stroll through its 33 rooms is to view Russian Ark as a matched opposite to Lucas' and Spielberg's Lost Ark. Instead of relying on hyperactive action-movie editing to fling the audience from one action set piece to another, the director, Alexander Sokurov, eschews cutting and arrives at an equally mesmeric effect.

Using a high-definition video camera with a unique portable hard disc and battery, his cameraman, Tilman Buettner (Run Lola Run), executes an uninterrupted Steadicam shot lasting for nearly the entire feature as the director stages one virtuoso tableaux after another in the stairways, halls and galleries of the Hermitage.

Sokurov intersperses close-up views and occasional analyses of art and architecture with offhand images from Russia's real past, such as Peter the Great whipping a general and Catherine the Great running from a theater rehearsal to relieve herself.

If Raiders of the Lost Ark makes you feel like an adolescent at a thrill-ride matinee, Russian Ark makes you feel like a school kid on a super-deluxe field trip. Of course, that means you intermittently nod, cringe and squirm, give the guides the benefit of the doubt, and leave in a state somewhere between spiritual elevation and exhaustion.

Sokurov threads the scenes together with a professional needler. A jaded 19th-century French envoy, the Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dreiden), finds himself traveling for never-explained reasons both through the corridors of the Hermitage and three centuries of Russian culture and society (exclusively, high culture and society). Sokurov serves as the Marquis' aural sidekick - the disembodied voice behind the camera of a filmmaker also dropped into the Enlightenment era for no apparent reason.

Early on, the movie's biggest running joke is that this diplomat is undiplomatic: He loves to note how the Russian monarchs stocked up on Western Europe's Old Masters, such as Rembrandt, El Greco and Rubens, because of Russian art's inferiority. But gradually, the imposing grace and seductive luxury of the Hermitage work their own spell on this curmudgeon until, in the gorgeous climactic scene, he joins in a mazurka during a 1913 royal bash.

Sokurov has an eye for visual grandeur - his other near-great scene depicts the Persian shah's grandson delivering official regrets to Czar Nicholas I for the murder of several Russians. But does this director have the substance to back it up? The movie's history amounts to a game of intellectual hopscotch as the Marquis and Sokurov eavesdrop on everything from Nicholas and Alexandra breaking bread with their doomed family to a trio of museum directors bemoaning the anti-art ravages of the Soviet era.

And this game of hopscotch skips over Russia's peasants and workers, who bore aristocratic indifference and brutality, wartime carnage and Soviet manipulation, and are represented only by a single coffin-maker in a workroom.

It's understandable, perhaps even heroic, for a Russian director to envision a film set in the Hermitage as a way of appreciating the Russian nobility's attempt to unite a sprawling country and infuse it with religious and aesthetic values often buried in the Soviet Union. But this movie's emotions of poignancy and loss, evoked most strongly when we realize that the 1913 ball-goers will perish in war and revolution, are spectral - evanescent.

The people in Russian Ark achieve stature by association with the sublime works that surround them. That's why Sokurov, for all his accomplishment, is less a bold innovator than a raider of lost art.

Sun Score **1/2

Russian Ark

Starring Sergei Dreiden

Directed by Alexander Sokurov

Released by Wellspring

Unrated

Time 96 minutes

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