February 12, 2003

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To Russia with love
Sokurov breathes history into life.

By Dennis Harvey

FEW CONCEPTS ARE more plaintive or poignant than the time capsule. Even when undertaken as sort of a joke (how many Tiger Beat issues and favorite marbles are forgotten under suburban lawns?), a time capsule gives our fragile, semioblivious present a glimmer of immortality. Alexander Sokurov has tried to capture, bottle, and preserve a national soul with a time capsule of his own, Russian Ark.

"Mother Russia" is itself a concept that's been plaintive and poignant for centuries – three of which are illustrated in full pageantry here – gaining through endless cycles of suffering an intense, inextricably religious mysticism that even the anticlerical Soviet Union counted on to keep the masses in place.

But first, the more obvious distinction, the one that's likely to get curiosity seekers in the art house door: Russian Ark is a 96-minute (minus framing credits) single shot, accomplished in a single take, requiring new technology to enable a high definition video camera's seamless travel via Steadicam of some 4,265 feet through nearly three dozen rooms, up and down two floors. This effort required eight months' rehearsal, an army of technicians and crew, and the coproduction muscle of Germany on this most Russian of projects. Unlike its few precedents in single-shot cinema – a handful of avant-garde experiments, plus Mike Figgis's multi-image, small-cast novelty Time Code – this Ark is an enormous spectacle: 2,000 actors and extras and as many period costumes.

Russian Ark must be dealt with as probably the most lavish abstraction ever wrestled onto the screen. (The closest contender I can think of, Alexander Jodorowsky's messianic 1973 "mescaline movie" The Holy Mountain, had considerably more of a story arc – which is to say, a faint one.) Its conceit is a sort of supernatural tour; the setting – the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – a depository for millennia of archaeological finds, classical antiquities, old masters, decorations, sketches, and sculptures from Russia as well as the outlying (mostly Western) world.

Our viewpoint is spiritualized – as Being John Malkovich-like joyriders in the camera's-eye mindset of a contemporary narrator (Sergei Dontsov, but surely the spirit of Sokurov himself) who finds himself transported without explanation back to the future Hermitage building in its earliest, circa-1710 days. Disoriented, rambling, the narrator is an invisible spectator as decades and centuries unfold in the rooms he passes through, each offering a fluid tableau of an era. Figures go unidentified; sometime residents Peter the Great and Catherine the Great rise, then fall back into an unending parade of servants, foreign dignitaries, Russian gentry, and military officers. Our confused guide's only acknowledging companion, an on-and-off one, is the 19th-century French diplomat (Sergey Dreiden) whose blasé, sometimes cynical comments personify a Eurocentric attitude "barbarian" Russia's court was forever trying to overcome.

It's quite possible to be bored by Russian Ark, once the ingeniousness of its technical stunt sinks in and the lack of any forthcoming narrative interest does likewise. Though I'd defy any patient viewer not to be exhilarated by the bravura climax: a stunning, sustained sweep through hundreds of revelers at the doomed Nicholas II's final 1913 Grand Royal Ball, its visual and musical waltz ending in a melancholy mass exit that portends the monarchy's own. Sokurov has never worked before on so massive an organizational scale, let alone risked such international commercial viability. God knows I don't begrudge him either, but the extraordinary metaphysical intensity of prior works is perhaps necessarily sublimated amid Ark's staggering physical reach.

Russian Ark, the first (relatively) widely distributed Sokurov film in the United States – minimalist 1996 Mother and Son got an eventual, tiny release – is likely to create new converts. That would be tremendous, as it might get earlier works into the realm of the accessible. Son of a Soviet military man, born in 1951 Siberia, the Moscow Film Schooled Sokurov spent a decade-plus creating features the censors suppressed, having no idea how to interpret them: 1978's Lonely Voice of a Man, 1986's Empire, 1988's remarkable sci-fi existential landscape Days of Eclipse, 1989's Madame Bovary rewrite Save and Protect, the brilliant 1990 mourning monograph The Second Circle. (It will be forever a source of Western puzzling why the USSR continued to allow and/or bankroll features it didn't approve, a mystery by no means limited to Sokurov's work.) Glasnost opened up the possibilities of international cofinancing, permitting Sokurov's Dostoyevski-derived Whispering Pages (1993), the gorgeously funereal Mother and Son, 1999's hypnotically dislocative Hitler fantasia Moloch, and the barely seen Stalin mediation Taurus. These would all be considered masterpieces if they'd been fully lost, or climaxed a director's career output. That doesn't begin to factor in Sokurov's larger documentary backlog, mostly consisting of works he titles "elegies," each with a wafting meditative air very much like Ark's own.

Which is to say, Russian Ark: very good. More Sokurov: oh-so-much better. He should rule current art house dialogue the same way Bergman, Antonioni, and Fellini once did.

'Russian Ark' opens Fri/24 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.