RUSSIAN ARK directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, written by Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina and Sokurov, produced by Andrei Deryabin, Jens Meurer and Karsten Stöter, with Sergei Dontsov and Mariya Kuznetsova. 96 minutes. A Hermitage Bridge Studio production. Opens Friday (March 7). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 82. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Making a movie that's one single 96-minute tracking shot, one take, is a stunt. But then, Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov is inordinately fond of technical tricks. Moloch was underlit to the edge of invisibility, and the edges of the image in Mother And Son are so smeared that the focus problems can literally induce a headache. For someone who's occasionally described as Tarkovsky's heir in the Russian cinema, Sokurov's awfully concerned with visual effects.
Russian Ark may be his most watchable film. It's in focus, most of it is reasonably lit, and when the foreground material isn't very interesting, at least we're getting a long walk through the Hermitage, St. Petersburg's great art museum.
Russian Ark pulls us along in the wake of an invisible narrator and a 19th-century French diplomat who comment on our encounters with 200 years of Russian history, from Catherine the Great to the film's stunning climactic set-piece, a grand ball with the last of the Romanovs on the eve of the revolution.
The first hour is interesting, but at times we're stalled in front of a painting or held too long in a room and can almost hear the assistant directors lining up the extras for the next vignette. The final half-hour is stunning, justifying Sokurov's ostentatious technique. It's unlikely you'll ever see another film like Russian Ark. It creates its own genre -- the intimate steadicam historical epic.