Shot in one long, continuous take, a 19th century French marquis takes a surreal trip through Russian and European history via a labyrinth of neverending ballrooms and corridors. Filmed entirely in the The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
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I can't help seeing this as an information film about the Hermitage and Russia rather than a real creative masterpiece, or at best a showcase for what camera nowadays, and rigorous planning, can achieve. I find that its always a slave to its conceit of the single take, and is unable, or unwilling, to break free.
While incredibly impressive, as most would agree, "Russian Ark" is not a one trick pony. In fact, it manages to present a wonderfully engaging story that would be just as engaging had it been done in more than a single shot. Every shot is breathtaking - the costumes, the rooms, the orchestras, it was all perfect.
I agree that this film really deserves credit for being done in one shot. I personally thought it could've been more interesting, though. (I mean, c'mon, Russian history is SO colorful and fascinating!)
I found it to be an absolutely banal tourist guide spectacle, which had absolutely nothing at all to say, explicitly at least as implicitly I found it nationalistic and reactionary in it's lavish glorification of the aristocracy. The dialog was utterly trite, the framing devise of the european (who was really annoying) and the russian uninteresting and I didn't think it looked as good as it could have. Just rubbish.
The idea was great, a roving camera taking in the splendor of the Hermitage past and present with apparently no break in the filming, but something seemed to be missing. Still, you have to admire the audacity of Sokurov.
Yo sueño que estoy aquí
destas prisiones cargado,
y soñé que en otro estado
más lisonjero me vi.
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí,
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.
Pedro Calderón de la Barca (Madrid, 1600-1681)
A mysterious journey with Sokurov and a XIX Century-French diplomat thru the Hermitage becomes a voyage of knowledge about Russia and its recent past. Aiming at full immedesimation with his own flow of consciousness (and eyesight), room after room Sokurov sets the viewer in the right mood to feel nostalgic about ages never experienced, to reflect on the XX Century... or to admire a work of art. A masterpiece.