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Russian Ark

September 7, 2010

Russian Ark (2002)
Director: Alexander Sokurov
Actors: Sergei Dreiden, Maria Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovy

Synopsis: A dreamlike glide around the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Review: This is a film for history lovers. It reeks of history, both in a conventional sense, as a cinematic pageant for eras, famous figures, material artefacts and social conventions now gone, but also in a universal, transcendental way. Russian Ark functions as commentary on the continuity of history and how it relates to humanity in a quasi-existential way – and to society as a means to memorialise its past and craft a national identity. Sokurov’s filmmaking aids that meditative stance on history and culture through its technique and its method of representation. The one-take journey round the Hermitage museum really emblematises the idea of history as something always in a state of flux, always evolving – note how Sokurov never organises the scenes that unfold in front of the camera in any chronological or dramatic order. Epochs and references come and go, representing the continual, often turbulent (in Russia’s case), cycle of history. Sokurov employs Sergei Dreiden as our companion, an anachronistic 19th Century French diplomat, mainly as a plot-tool to enable information to be communicated and debates to be voiced, but also as a form of light relief (particularly needed during some ‘slower’ moments through the art galleries) as he banters lightly with Sokurov’s disembodied narrator and the other characters encountered in the museum.

Sokurov’s conception of himself as narrator, and especially the sense that the whole enterprise is a ‘dream’ (note the way the camera frame is given an ontological perspective), is especially moving and profound, as it befits the air of elegiac historic reverie, and when the camera retreats at the film’s climax, it locates the museum as a fragile arc floating on an icy sea- a final, eloquent metaphor for Sokurov’s ode to Russian history, and History in general. (October 2006)

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