Russian Ark – a film review

Russian Ark is a stunning film released in 2002 and directed by Alexander Sokurov.

The film was shot is one continuous 96-minute Steadicam camera shot in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Russian Ark is meticulous in its details, taking us on a two-kilometer trek over three centuries of Russian history.

The film is narrated by two narrators – one visible and one invisible. The invisible narrator implies he may have died and been transported here (via a time machine?) for reasons unknown to him.

The interactions between the two and their insights and observations drive the story – for example they both agree that Russians are lacking in originality but great at copying Italian style – they agree this palace is a better St. Peter’s than St. Peter’s in Rome.

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The visible narrator (I will call him “the Guide”) who the camera follows, is a real eccentric and aesthete – he appears to be a 19-century French traveler who also arrived here for reasons unknown even to himself and is suddenly fluent in Russian.

This guy is funny, cultured, artistic and charming. He acknowledges a comment about his great hair but telling us that, of course – artists always have fantastic hair.

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The visible narrator

The Guide has been here before, so he recognizes some of the works of art from his era, but he also needs to make sense of all the changes in the rooms and what he has been told happened up to the present time, e.g. all the Russians who died in WW II, which he finds inconceivable.
So we discover each new person and work of art through his eyes.

The Guide is sometimes, and sometimes not, seen by people pursuing various activities in the museum (setting up a banquet, viewing art, etc.)

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Throughout Russian Ark, the camera and narrators guide us through the various rooms of the museum – each room contains various characters from different periods of Russian history – from Tsar Nicholas to Catherine the Great to modern-day tourists appreciating the paintings.

The cinematography and the story-boarding has been meticulously planned, each room has a distinct lens filter/hue which captures its mood.

This must have taken ages to coordinate and navigate all the aspects of making this epic: the government approvals/bureaucracy, the actors, costumes – and again this is all one one take – no edits.

The film concludes in grand Tolstoy-esque style with a luxurious and prolonged ball with lots of dancing, drink and food.

Russian Ark is much more than one continuous camera shot – perceptive commentary on the Russian soul, hundreds of actors who never strike a false note, stunning art, and thousands of period-authentic costumes.

And a compelling reason to visit The Hermitage in St. Petersburg for yourself.

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