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Like a ghost with a digital camera, an unidentified filmmaker finds himself in the Hermitage in St Petersburg in the early 1700s. As he glides through the elaborate palace admiring the fabulous works of art, he meets The Marquis (Sergey Dreiden) the only figure who can see or communicate with him; he turns out to be a cynical French diplomat (surprised at his own sudden ability to speak Russian). As the two men take a physical and occasionally time-jumping tour of the imperial court of old Russia, they are witnesses to a myriad examples of life under the Tsars. They also exchange often wryly acidic opinions (often about Russia's cultural place in or out of Europe) as they observe a unique world of art and history unfolding through the centuries, until the last Great Royal Ball of 1913, on the eve of the revolution.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
There's no editor credit because there isn't an editor. Sokurov shot this film in a single take on a Sony HD camera (specially fitted with a hard disk recording facility to enable more than the usual 46 minutes of shooting time). But that's only the technical gee whizz of it; the film is remarkable for its technical achievements, sure, but only in service of its creative, cinematic merits - which are legion.

This totally original film is a work of daring and brilliance; ignoring the usual parameters and conventions of cinema, Sokurov virtually turns himself into the camera, in a way that includes the audience. His intention is not to be clever and digital: he wants to simplify the process and make his film more real for us. In this he succeeds brilliantly, as we travel through place and time - several times, in fact - absolutely glued to the screen. The history of Russia pops up through scenes throughout the palace, from the pomp of a lavish court event to the pedestrians of today exploring the gallery of rich and rare artworks.

The deceptively casual filmmaking style hides immense logistics and exceptional craftwork (in all departments, from costumes and make up to sets, sound and special lighting). Just take a look at the 45 minute feature, In One Breath, which provides a good insight into the immensity of the task - or rather, the immensity of the pressure to have the tasks done in a fraction of the time. And the pressure for every participant, from actor to crew, to get it right the first (and only) time.

There's a memorable section in which steadicam operator Tilman Buttner almost gives up because of pains in his groin, but the sight of 300 pairs of dancers in the Grand Ballroom gives him a shot of adrenaline and he finishes it. This doco is almost as exhilarating as the film itself.

Buttner's steadicam glides smoothly through the restored Hermitage as Sokurov brings to life not one but two Empresses (Catherines I and the Great) and hundreds of other players on the stage of Russian history. Russian Ark ('ark' as in the repository of samples of Russia's great art and history) is at once revealing and mysterious about its subject matter, and remarkable for creating a point of view yet keeping the central 'character' completely invisible.

This is a film in which character does not play a central role; The Marquis is a commentator, while the camera plays the role of our eyes. Indeed, the commentary adds a dimension to the film which engages us mentally, about Russia's often love-hate relationship with Europe. And the cumulative effect of seamless, unedited footage in real time is palpable. So if I've made it sound like a worthy documentary, I've failed; this is a vibrant and fascinating work that has much more than curiosity value - but it has that, too, by the ton.

And tons of background in producer Jens Meurer's commentary, both in filmmaking terms and even more interestingly, in historical terms.

The second commentary is Australian in origin, presented by Dr Barbara Creed, who is Associate Professor and Head of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Melbourne. Her academic approach provides a combination of exposition and analysis. While it's not as passionate as is Meurer's (although she does reveal emotional responses, like "It's almost an excess of beauty…" as she follows the camera), it's a valid and interesting contrast.

The Museum of Memory illustrated lecture, also Australian in origin, is by art and culture historian Dr Christopher R Marshall. This 45 minute piece was shot in Melbourne during the film's theatrical release and contains detailed background information about the Hermitage, one of the world's most valuable and dazzling art museums, steeped in turbulent history.

One feature of the DVD that is not usually singled out as a 'special' feature, is the scene selection or chapter breakdown, both on the inside of the slick and on the DVD itself. In this case, it's a valuable guide to the Hermitage, clearly labelling each of the 26 locations that we pass through, from the entrance to the Winter Palace, through the rooms and halls (eg The Rubens Room, The Pavilion Hall, The Small Dining Room, etc) to the Main Staircase of the Winter Palace at the end.

This DVD release is a welcome sign that Australians are not only culturally aware but increasingly sophisticated and attuned to the wider world; your library will be profoundly enhanced by the presence of Russian Ark on the shelf.

Published January 15, 2004

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CAST: Sergey Dreiden, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Alexander Chaban, Lev Yeliselev, Oleg Khemelnitsky, Alla Osipenko

DIRECTOR: Alexander Sokurov

SCRIPT: Anatoly Nikiforov, Alexander Sokurov

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 enhanced; 5.1 Dolby Digital Subtitles: English and French

SPECIAL FEATURES: In One Breath - Documentary on the making of Russian Ark; audio commentary by the producer, Jens Meurer; selected scenes with audio commentary by Dr Barbara Creed (Associate Professor and Head of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Melbourne); Museum of Memory Illustrated Lecture by Dr Christopher R. Marshall; Theatrical Trailer


DVD RELEASE: January 7, 2004

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