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A visually hypnotizing cinematic feat, RUSSIAN ARK is Alexsandr Sokurov's spellbinding ode to St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum. Shot in one fluid take using High Definition video cameras, the photography floats and careens through the lavish corridors of the museum, examining its architectural details while following a dreamlike plot. A cast of 867 actors supply the action of the film, whether dancing the mazurka in a lively ballroom, performing a military salute, or watching a theater performance. The Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), an aged but limber European dressed in solid black, is the film's charismatic guide, leading the narrator--who is the unidentified voice behind the camera--through each doorway and into each gallery in a sweeping tour of the Hermitage. While the Marquis interacts with some of the guests, debating about Italian art with a couple of Russian scholars, delighting over rich paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck with an angelic blind woman, taking a lively brunette for a spin on the dance floor, others do not see him. Even the narrator suspects that the Marquis is a ghost, long dead and wandering the Hermitage in a quest to better understand history. Time periods, indicated by style of dress, fluctuate between the 1700s and the present. Famous Russian figures, such as Peter the Great, Nicholas I, and Catherine the Great appear and then disappear, with no explanation of their roles. Between the Marquis and the narrator, confusion reigns. They are spectators and trespassers in this mysterious space, trying to find their way.
Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov (THE SUN) broke boundaries with his dreamlike vision of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russian Ark. It's the first feature-length narrative film shot in a single take (on digital video, using a specially designed disc instead of tape). Russian Ark is shot from the point-of-view of an unseen narrator, as he explores the museum and travels through Russian history. The audience sees through his eyes as he witnesses Peter the Great (Maksim Sergeyev) abusing one of his generals; Catherine the Great (Maria Kuznetsova) desperately searching for a bathroom; and, in the grand finale, the sumptuous Great Royal Ball of 1913. The narrator is eventually joined by a sarcastic and eccentric 19th century French Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), who travels with him throughout the huge grounds, encountering various historical figures and viewing the legendary artworks on display. While the narrator only interacts with the Marquis (he seems to be invisible to all the other inhabitants), the Marquis occasionally interacts with visitors and former residents of the museum. The film was obviously shot in one day, but the cast and crew rehearsed for months to time their movements precisely with the flow of the camera while capturing the complex narrative, with elaborate costumes from different periods, and several trips out to the exterior of the museum. Tilman Buttner, the director of photography, was responsible for capturing it all in one single Steadicam shot.