This is probably the most beautiful art film ever made. It holds the distinction of being the first and only cinematic event to date, to be filmed in one single 96 minute take. As a consequence, there is no editing. The cast of 2000 supporting actors had to perform on cue, as the camera and director moved through the many rooms and buildings that comprise the St Petersburg's Hermitage. Once filming began the project had to unfold exactly to plan. The result is stunning on many levels. The grasp of the moment is so perfect, that one is left with a sense of utter eternity that renders the need for all other explanation superfluous. To be present, and to be a witness - is enough. The film was made on the 23rd of December 2001 and released in the cinema in 2002. This DVD version was released in 2003.
The film travels throughout the Winter Palace, which is the main building of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. This musuem is made-up of six buildings:
1) The Winter Palace.
2) The Small Hermitage.
3) The Old Hermitage.
4) The New Hermitage.
5) The Hermitage Theatre.
6) The Reserve House.
The film covers 300 years of Russian art and artistic culture. Each room the camera enters, plunges the unsuspecting audience into a different Russian year, dynasty and existential environment. The Director - Alexander Sokurov - narrates the entire film through a disembodied voice. Infact, the events of the film are viewed only through the eyes of this unnamed character. He is Russian of course, but there is an implication that he may have died in an accident. The other main character throughout is a Frenchman (played by the actor Sergei Dreiden), usually referred to as 'the European', whose character is called the Marquis de Custine. These two characters encounter one another at the beginning of the film, and the dialogue involve the European criticising Russian art as being a mere copy of European art, whilst the Russian voice continuously disagrees with this analysis, instead always advocating the uniqueness of the Russian interpretation of nature, and perhaps gently suggesting that the Russian people are as much European, as they are anyother identity. With the perfect acting, costuming and historical recreation, the result is compelling and the narrative convincing. In the end, the Marquis is won-over by the sheer wight of delight that high Russian culture has presented him with - so much so infact, that he decides to stay in the room that displays an 18th century Ballroom dance scene and full orchestra. The two main characters are never really explained - nor should they be. The caste is magnificent and their acting perfect. The film took 96 minutes to shoot, but 4 years to plan and rehearse. In many ways, it can be viewed as a theatre performance on a scale never attempted before. Of course, there is no stage, but simply room after room of actors and actresses waiting for the door to open, and their performance to begin.
The 2003 DVD edition contains the unabridged film, lasting 96 minutes. The Special Features consist of the following:
a) Theatrical Trailer.
b) Documentary - a 43 minute 'behind the scenes' that is as compelling as the film itself.
c) Hubert Robert (1733-1808) - A Fortunate Life. Many of the paintings in the Hermitage were painted by this French artist.
e) Production Notes.
The Russian name for this film is 'Russkij Kovcheg' - indeed 'Russian Ark' in English. The reason for this is made clear at the very end of the film. The Hermitage itself appears to be floating in a body of water - perhaps the sea - and is performing the function of an ark that is carry, and therefore preserving Russian history, culture and art. It is an immense vision, that at the sametime has the simplicity of an Haiku. The imperial scenes of a Persian Diplomatic Mission apologising to the Tsar, the popmp and ceremony, the handsome, tall and straight Russian soldiers, are reminiscent of similar scenes often found in Chinese films, such as 'Hero'. This is a truly beautiful experience on every level of awareness.