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RUSSIAN ARK

SHIP OF STATE

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At nearly the very end of the dream of history that is Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, a gowned young woman departing an 18th-century ball trips on a marble staircase. She's part of a flushed, happy throng of well-bred revelers, but though her stumble takes only a passing moment, it is hard to miss: It happens right in front of Sokurov's camera, which is descending the stairs with her. So you suspect the filmmaker choreographed that stumble, and not only because the whole of Russian Ark is so brazenly, beautifully, obviously choreographed. It's also because he's planting a touch of happenstance in a film so much about people and events that are immutable and distant, frozen in the past.

Or maybe not. Maybe for Sokurov, as for Faulkner, the past isn't even past. That would explain why he feels so at home in the film's sole, if sprawling, shooting location: The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a complex that includes Peter the Great's Winter Palace, and which in the 18th century was transformed by the Empress Catherine into a museum of epic proportions.

Sokurov's comfort in the Hermitage also seems to be why he took the unprecedented step of shooting a feature-length movie as a single, unbroken shot. Such a feat isn't possible with traditional motion-picture film, which can record only about 12 minutes of action at a time. So Sokurov turned to high-definition digital video, and the result is about 90 minutes of almost continuously moving Steadicam, its busy and elaborately rehearsed images passing before your eyes like a river of time.

The film's unseen protagonist, embodied by the camera eye, might be Sokurov himself, a modern man who awakens in the Hermitage in the 1700s. Disoriented and literally out of time, he is nonetheless just in time. A ball is about to begin, and a guide appears: the Marquis, a wry, worldly man in a black frock coat. The Marquis, who turns out to be a 19th-century French diplomat, shepherds the visitor along with the audience through the Hermitage's magnificent halls, pausing to savor the artwork, spy on royalty, converse about history and try to make some kind of sense of Russia's place in the culture of the world.

With its dozens of Hermitage settings, its round-the-world camera moves, and its costumed cast of hundreds, Russian Ark impresses simply as a physical production (the credits include 11 wig-makers alone). That conception is nothing if not to scale: Besides housing Peter and Catherine, the Hermitage was the site of 1917's October Revolution, survived (with the rest of what was then called Leningrad) a two-and-a-half-year Nazi siege, and remains among the world's great museums. In its basement, Sokurov deploys men muscling archaic machines, a gaudily costumed ballet troupe, an opera and an orchestra in powdered wigs and tri-cornered hats -- a whole repository of collective cultural memory. "Russia's like a theater," observes the Marquis. He later adds, "The Russians are so talented at copying because you don't have any ideas of your own"

But Russian Ark is also a film of details poetic and provocative. In one passage, the Marquis shares a moment with a blind woman admiring a sculpture with her hands -- who then explains a Van Dyck as though she can see it. In a room suffused with tangerine light, the Empress Catherine teaches some children to curtsy. "Mortals must not chase royalty," we are told, as we watch her bulky figure step across a snowy courtyard path, disappearing into the mist; then we meet some all-too-mortal royals, spending a few moments with the Romanovs on the eve of their doom. In one of his jarring (yet unremarked-upon) encounters with people from the present day, the Marquis tells a teen-ager looking at a painting of the apostles Peter and Paul that he cannot understand it unless he has read Scripture.

I'm sure I'd have gotten more out of Russian Ark were I the least bit cultured (or the least bit Russian). But it's such a cinematic treat -- and feat -- that there's plenty to appreciate anyway. As the Marquis, Sergey Dreiden -- his sad, alert eyes recalling John Malkovich -- makes an engagingly contrary companion. Even the invisible visitor behind the camera develops a personality. Discussing forms of government, the Marquis asks, "What exists now, a republic?" Our narrator, implicitly referencing contemporary chaos, mordantly replies, "I don't know."

In its ambition, Russian Ark can prove exhilarating, though in the end it leaves you with a feeling of sanguine spectatorship -- perhaps just as Sokurov wishes. "Has it all been staged for me?" his proxy asks as the film begins. He is one of the "eternal people" summoned in another scene, agog at the glory that was the Russian Empire, part of Europe yet not part of it, a place where guests of the royal ball, all finished waltzing, exit through vault-ceilinged halls filled with beautiful light. The sheer solidity of it all, the stone pillars and gilt fixtures -- it's all still there, but it can never be quite the same, either. In Russian, with subtitles. * * * 1/2

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