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WRITER-DIRECTOR ALEXANDER (NÉE ALEKSANDR) Sokurov — a perennial presence at major film festivals with such recent work as Taurus (2000), Moloch (1999) and, screening this weekend at LACMA, Mother and Son (1996)(see Calendar Film Pick of the Week) — is on the whole more respected than beloved. Before attending film school, the now-51-year-old country boy-turned-St. Petersburger got his university degree in history, and has looked there for his subject matter ever since. Only it's not just history, to hear his admirers tell it: On Sokurov's own official Web site, one Russian critic describes the filmmaker's subject as "man and his fate" — surely a daunting ambition for anyone's lifework, and one that has led to accusations of grandiosity.
Certainly, only an artist with an inflated sense of mission could conceive of his work as a kind of biblical ark for 300 years of modern Russian history. Russian Arkopens with a black screen and the voice of an unnamed filmmaker (Sokurov's, actually) explaining that he's just regaining consciousness after some mysterious "accident" — perhaps, the viewer may come to believe, the historical "anomaly" of Russian communism. When the black gives way to a clear image, we're in a back courtyard of the Hermitage museum complex (of which Peter the Great's Winter Palace is the oldest building) amid officers and ladies, dressed in 18th-century finery, as they make their way to a party inside. The camera/unseen filmmaker scurries along with them and soon meets up with the figure who will be our companion and guide, a 19th-century French diplomat known only as the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden) — a man of exquisite taste, and at the same time a familiar Russian punching bag, the Western dilettante blind to the depths of the aggrieved Russian soul.
With the Marquis' appearance, the film settles into its formal structure, a journey through the Hermitage as art museum and living historical presence. Working with German cinematographer Tilman Büttner, who was the Steadicam operator on Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, Sokurov shot all of Russian Ark as one continuous take. To accomplish this, he employed a high-definition video camera that stored its images on a specially developed portable hard drive that could record up to 100 minutes of uncompressed images. (The video image was eventually transferred to 35mm film.) As the camera makes its way through the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, the "ark" of the title, it weaves in and out of time periods, assessing canvases and sculptures, glimpsing small vignettes and vast scenes. To make sure that our eyes don't get bored, the camera moves up, down and all around, compensating for the absence of editing by continually reframing the action.
But clearly, something more serious than stylistic innovation is afoot here — something too serious, Sokurov must have felt, for mere drama. Russian Ark doesn't act so much as it muses: on art, on history, on Russia versus the West, on politics. The first long segment of the tour touches upon the creation of the Winter Palace by Peter the Great (Maxim Sergeyev), whom we spy in a small room, dressed in one of his favored peasant costumes, thrashing a general presumptuous enough to have made advances to a princess. This Asiatic tyrant, the Marquis sniffs, is a cultural parvenu who, tellingly, built his "European" edifice on a swamp.
Sokurov's rejoinder is purely cinematic, a stunning coup of motion that brings us up and down twisting staircases, out into a vineyard of ropes and creaking pulleys, a working backstage, down across the top of an orchestra pit, and up to a balcony where Catherine the Great (who founded the Hermitage as a museum and stocked it with paintings and sculpture) directs her own play, then dashes out to an upstairs foyer in desperate need of a place in which to "piss." High art, low comedy, hard labor and royal prerogative are here thrown together in an elegant unity, a breathtaking demonstration of Russian cinematic — hence artistic — brilliance.
Russian Ark now begins a new sequence, detouring into a gallery filled with modern-day museum visitors. Without finding the Marquis particularly out of place, two of them — a doctor and an actor, friends of Sokurov — draw him over to a Tintoretto painting (The Birth of John the Baptist) and discuss the symbolism of a cat and a chicken. Next, the Marquis encounters a blind woman feeling a statue; she takes him onward to her favorite painting and stands aside as he smells the oil on the canvas.
An intense desire to reanimate the artworks by bringing all the senses to bear on them culminates in a gallery of Goyas. Both the Roman Catholic Marquis and the ever-unseen Sokurov are struck dumb by the religiously themed canvases, as the camera nearly brushes up against them in a gesture of infatuation. By now, the film's allusiveness has grown extraordinarily intense: Goya's rejection of perspective and line in favor of color and light reflects the differences between film and video. And in the very next scene, the Marquis attacks a young Russian boy for not knowing enough to admire a portrait of saints Peter and Paul he's gazing at, undoubtedly a reference to the palace's Tower of Saints Peter and Paul, a site of much historical strife.
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