Alexander Sokurov's spellbinding "Russian Ark," a film done in one unbroken camera shot that moves through St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, is a staggering work of art, an unparalleled technical feat that is also cinematic poetry of the first order. As Sokurov's camera glides through 33 rooms of the Hermitage, moving in and out of cathedral-like galleries, opulent ballrooms and shadowy corridors and workrooms, three centuries of Russian history and European art are compressed into a single 96-minute shot.
In the dreamlike journey, an unseen modern filmmaker (voiced by Sokurov) is joined by a somewhat scornful French diplomat, the Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreiden). The Marquis is a weary sophisticate who keeps commenting on the artistic riches of the museum and the vagaries of Russian history bizarrely unfolding before their gaze in room after room. The filmmaker is full of awe, but the black-clad Marquis is jaded - as acridly impatient with modernity (and the contemporary museumgoers they bump into) as he is fond of 19th-century pomp and splendor.
We see the great paintings of El Greco, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens and others in the Hermitage treasure trove, discussed by the Marquis and other aficionados. At the same time, as if in a nightmare, we keep getting glimpses of Russian history: Peter the Great manhandling a general; Russia's last Czar, Nicholas II, dining with his family before the revolution or receiving emissaries from Persia; and Catherine the Great attending an opera and desperately running around in search of a restroom - or later wandering out into a snowy courtyard.
The museum itself, of course, is the Russian Ark of the title, preserving history and culture through one cataclysm or tyranny after another. It is a citadel of the world's art that was once the winter palace of the Czars, later stormed during the 1919 communist revolution and besieged by Nazi armies during WWII. These 20th-century storms, though, are known only to the filmmaker character. His companion, the Marquis, is lost in deeper reveries, a more distant past.
That is part of Sokurov's major theme: art, an intense source of pleasure, is also often grounded in pain and surrounded by historical injustice. The profundity of that theme gives added impact to its astounding technical feat. "Russian Ark" is the first continuously shot, one-take, high-definition video feature, and to bring it off Sokurov needed a specially designed 100-minute digital video reel and battery pack. He also required more than 2,000 actors and extras, 22 assistant directors, months of rehearsal, the closure and redecoration of the museum itself, and, crucially, the services of one of the world's most brilliant Steadicam operators, Tilman Buttner, who shot the chase scenes in "Run, Lola, Run" and here lit the museum and operated the camera during the whole tracking shot.
The result is the most complex and beautiful single shot in the history of movies.
Most amazingly, because of technical constraints and the museum schedule, Sokurov had to shoot the entire film in one take, in one day, without a mistake. That they did it, achieving such incredible results under such staggering pressure, seems miraculous.
"Russian Ark," my choice as the Best Small Venue Chicago movie premiere of 2002, is both a masterpiece of film art and of Russian culture, and it shouldn't bother us that it's also a movie that may bewilder some casual viewers. Sokurov, whom Susan Sontag called Europe's finest living art filmmaker, makes his movies for another audience: the appreciative cognoscenti whom Stendhal called "the happy few." Like Andrei Tarkovsky or Serge Paradjanov, two great Russian film poets whose careers slightly preceded his and who also first worked under the heel of state censors, he expertly uses indirection, allusion and secret subtext.
In "Russian Ark," he plays with this strategy, joking about the unseen filmmaker's confusion and undercutting the Marquis' pompous and shortsighted Europhile views of Russia. "Russian Ark" is not really obscure or impenetrable. Any ordinary viewer can enjoy it simply as a glorious travelogue though one of the world's most remarkable art museums, but at the same time, it has deeper meanings and pleasures that keep revealing themselves on multiple viewings.
At the end, after nearly 90 minutes of camera virtuosity and visual grandeur, Sokurov and company top themselves with an amazingly complex final set piece: his restaging of a 1913 pre-WWI palace ball in which hundreds of brightly costumed players dance to the music of the Hermitage Orchestra, applaud and then slowly wander down the staircases and through the lobbies to the exits as the camera weaves through and around them.
This truly breathtaking sequence shows us the finale for an era, the last waltz and last gasp of Russian imperial splendor, as visually magnificent as it is naive and foredoomed. Though the monarchy-loving Marquis wants never to leave, the filmmaker, still lost in his dream, moves out with the crowds and, caught in the whirl of humanity, has a last vision of the museum - as a boat traveling endlessly on the waters of history. It is a stunning climax for a extraordinary film, one that, like the museum itself, captures and shows three centuries of Russian culture and history in all its beauty, confusion, terror and majesty.
4 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Alexander Sokurov; written by Anatoly Nikiforov, Sokurov; dialogue by Boris Khaimsky, Sokurov, Svetlana Proskurina; photographed by Tilman Buttner; Steadicam operated by Buttner; visual concept and image design by Sokurov; art direction by Yelena Zhukova, Natalia Kochergina; music by Sergey Yevtushenko; music performed by The State Hermitage Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor; produced by Andrey Deryabin, Jens Meurer, Karsten Stoter. A Wellsprings release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:36. No MPAA rating. (Parents cautioned for some mature subject matter.)
The Marquis de Custine - Sergey Dreiden
Catherine the Great - Maria Kuznetsova
The Filmmaker - Alexander Sokurov
The Spy - Leonid Mozgovoy
Boris Piotrovsky - Alexander Chaban
Peter the Great - Maxim Sergeyev Nicholas I - Yuliy Zhurin
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.