Thursday, December 15, 2011

LIKE NO OTHER FILM I'VE EVER SEEN; THAT IS "RUSSIAN ARK". This 2002 film by director Alexander Sokurov (in Russian "Русский ковчег") doesn't fit any category I can think of. Filmed on location in the actual Winter Palace of the Czars which is now the Hermitage Museum, the entire 96 minute film was shot IN ONE TAKE! No cuts. No edits. And there are 2000 people in the cast; all wearing period costumes who all had to know their cues and enter at the proper moment or else the entire film would've been spoiled! Seriously!?!? The film is half about the building itself and its history and half about the masterpieces of art which the Hermitage now houses. Sokurov's obvious love of both art and Russian history permeates every frame. And each and every frame was captured with a digital Steadicam in one single take. I'm sorry, I just can't get over that. Directors from Orson Welles to John Carpenter to Martin Scorsese have been chasing the "extended take" in their films for years but here's a guy who shoots his entire movie in one take. Actually, the first two takes were spoiled by "technical difficulties" and Sokurov only had time for one more attempt before his time allowed in the Hermitage expired. Luckily, the final take went off without a hitch and that is the movie as we now have it. Sound was redone in post due to the director's habit of cursing loudly whenever something didn't quite go perfectly. The film opens with a totally black screen and our on screen narrator (director Sokurov himself) explains that he was in some sort of accident and somehow finds himself here. Wherever that is. The entire film is shot from the camera's/narrator's POV. We shortly find ourselves in the Hermitage where the narrator encounters people dressed in the clothing of various historical eras. The narrator soon meets a character known simply as "The European" (Sergei Dreiden) who actually represents the 19th century French diplomat Marquis de Custine; the Marquis wrote a famous book on his travels in Russia "LA RUSSIE EN 1839". The eccentric "European" winds his way throughout the Hermitage with our narrator/camera in tow encountering people from all different eras in Russian history. We even see Catherine the Great, Peter the Great and Czar Nicholas II and his ill-fated family. The off-kilter, dream-like quality of the film is remarkable and there is a certain dream-logic at work here. Also there is a very real probability that the narrator (and "The European") are dead and merely ghosts gliding through the museum. The European sometimes interacts with the people he meets (especially the staff who constantly seem to be shoo-ing him out of rooms) and sometimes appears completely invisible to those around him. We witness a grand ball with an orchestra playing Glinka, a theatrical performance, Czar Nicholas I received the grandson of the Shah of Iran for a state "apology" at the murder of a Russian ambassador, Catherine the Great bounding down a snow-path (presumable to make a romantic assignation) and even a man building his own coffin during the World War II siege of the city. Add to this the frequent stops to examine works of art in the museum: Rubens, El Greco, Canova, et. al. The surroundings -- being the actual Hermitage itself -- are obviously stunning to look at; as are the works of art. The costuming is extraordinary. Lighting by Bernd Fischer and Anatoli Radionov is unbelieveable considering they were constantly on the move for 96 minutes. And the photography by Tilman Büttner is nothing short of a miracle. Then, of course, we come to Sokurov's direction which required a cast of 2000 to know their lines, their cues, their choreography and their timing so as not to spoil the one take. If for no other reason, this film is worth watching just for the technical accomplishment. But the film is much more than that. It's a slightly dizzing, often exquisitely beautiful, sometimes surreal and occasionally funny experience which resembles no other film out there. And for anyone with even the slightest interest in art or history, RUSSIAN ARK is a delightful Faberge egg of cinema.

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