At first, it's the gimmick that grabs you. Using a single setting, and single 96 minute stead-cam shot, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov hopes to illustrate the whole of his nation's history. Told within the magnificent Hermitage Museum (the Winter Palace, to be exact) and following an arcane, non-chronological approach, the end result is like watching ghosts gather. Yes, there is a plot of sorts (an unseen narrator walks through the historic visage, his traveling companion - a 19th Century French Aristocrat named The Marquis de Custine - schooled on the parts of Russian folklore he's misinterpreted) and lots of visual pageantry. But if you only take Russian Ark for its face value wow-factor alone, you're missing the point. Few films have ever captured the museum experience better. In fact, one could argue that this film is a primer for anyone thinking about creating an exhibit to celebrate the past. Sokurov seems to suggest, and rightfully so, that every installation should bring the subject "to life." Like walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Louvre in Paris, each step should be a time machine, each setting a suggestion for bringing what happened before into the present for everyone to experience.
Again, the process is important here. Sokurov had to organize, plot out, rehearse, and re-stage his idea over and over again to guarantee it would work within the confines of the Hermitage and its filming restrictions. He wanted everything to be structured, though explanations were left to those with an intimate knowledge of Russian history and contemporary post-Soviet designs. Granted, one has to wonder if a traditional movie made in this manner - meaning, we get the walk through the museum but none of the carefully choreographed single shot strategies - would be just as interesting. Part of what makes Russian Ark so special is the idea that we are seeing one camera, in one steady motion, capturing an hour and a half of constant interaction and dialogue. It's almost surreal in its structuring and delivery. It is easy to label this as a tour de force since no one in their right mind would ever attempt this outside the most lofty of artistic ambitions. Besides, it's a huge creative gamble. If it works - and it does here - it becomes part of the subtext of the overall presentation, a modern comment on the period pasts. If it doesn't, on the other hand, a viewer will simply be bored as one more beautifully crafted set-piece slides by as the lens never stops.
Russian Ark also follows a museum mandated idea of attention span as well. An opulent ball complete with costumed dancers demands immediate appreciation, but almost overstays its welcome. Elsewhere, recreations of key moments in the country's problematic existence, including moments with Catherine and Peter the Great, Nicholas I and II, as well as the mysterious Anastasia and the Bolshevik Revolution flash by. Very little of the nation's dive into Marxism and Cold War Communism is seen here. Even World War II and Russia's part in the defeat of Germany is given short shrift. In fact, Russian Ark often plays like a cinematic version of your aging grandparents, angry at what the world has become and determined to live their life locked in the ways of decades (or in this case, centuries) past. It may function as an expression of personal pride on the part of Sokurov, but there's apparently no love for the strict Soviet structures that undermined the people for eons. In fact, this is so much of a love letter to Russian history pre-1900 that only those who share the filmmaker's passion will feel like they are part of the experience.
For those outside the Asian arena, Russian Ark will be an undeniable novelty with lasting impact from an aesthetic approach. You will never look at a 20 minute or less Alfonso Cuaron or Martin Scorsese single shot in the same way again. On the other hand, the film is really nothing more than its mannerisms, speaking to a populace already versed in what's important about the sequences we are seeing. There is no desire to translate the meaning to the moviegoing masses outside of Russia. Instead, it's more like opera or ballet. There's an underlying story and we can see it playing out before our appreciative eyes, but because we don't understand Italian, or aren't well versed in the various meanings within certain dance steps or choreography, we are stuck at a certain restricted level of admiration. There is no inherent drama here, only the superficial, structured kind. Russian Ark is indeed a jewel, but it's an unreachable, insular treasure.
As for added content, we are treated to a featurette entitled "Film in One Breath" which covers the movie's making, as well as a trailer. The documentary is very interesting as it allows us to understand what it took to make this movie (they had to start over, 20 minutes in). The interviews within also add to our understanding of the technical pitfalls and problems.