Friday, May 13, 2011

Movie Review: Russian Ark

Russian Ark is a fantastic Russian art film that deftly sweeps through three hundred years of Russian history while moving through an art museum.  I will first admit that it will not be everyone's cup-of-tea, even the open-minded.  The pacing is slow, in spite of the scope and the limited time.  It is more about spectacle than story, but what a spectacle.  The story also involves characters standing in front of paintings talking about art and many seemingly random and not highly explained vignettes from Russian history which will only be more distant for American viewers not educated on the movie's subject matter.  It is possibly the most high culture movie I have ever seen, which in my opinion is a strength.  On the other hand, it is a technical masterpiece, a 99-minute tracking shot, combined with ambitious content and not merely contenting itself to break new ground technically.  It is one of the greatest costume epics ever.  It is a politically incorrect, culturally conservative view of Russia and Russian history.  For many people it will be a new perspective, if not their first perspective, on Russian history.  It is an ambitious, albeit imperfect, movie that can be enjoyed if you take it one moment at a time, don't worry about having a complete understanding of what is happening and shut off all narrative expectations that you would probably normally bring to a movie.  As I already mentioned, it's not for everyone, but I think it is worth seeing at least once with an open mind.

The entire movie takes place in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.  The scenery is fantastic, but you wish you could be there.  Watching the camera move through its halls is thus a form of escapism and almost documentarian.  The acting performances were almost universally fantastic.  The weird Frenchman throughout the movie is not particularly bad, but I don't know why the choice of a character who behaves in that strange manner.  As to the scenes dragging, I was not bothered.  These are neat pieces of history, big and small moments, never to be relived or brought back, except in this sort of context.  It is a form of escapism.  Just enjoying these moments of Russian life is a pleasure that surpasses narrative expectations.  The fantastic ball at the end of the movie, the very last royal ball before the revolution could not have gone on too long.  It was such a beautiful moment well choreographed.  To make an analogy, when you are at the Appomattox courthouse with Lee and Grant, there are no boring details.

Some critics have criticized that this movie would be no good without the long take.  This is an irrelevant criticism because the movie does have the long take and you can't take that away from it.  They are criticizing a hypothetical movie that doesn't exist.  The long take of this movie is probably the biggest reason that it is great, but it is also a valid reason for its greatness and not some qualifier that makes the movie not actually great.  It is amazing, beautiful and exciting to behold.  It also binds together seemingly random pieces and gives them a unity that they would have not otherwise had.  The movie would have too much disunity without it.  The pieces would be boring and even border on meaningless without said unity.  Merely being in the same movie would not be enough.

Politically, I largely agree with what I saw to be the message of the film in the parts were I knew enough to have an opinion.  Sokurov sees Russian culture as under-appreciated.  He sees czarist Russia as having a worse reputation than it deserves and communism as the destruction of cultural identity.  I firmly agree that the twentieth century's haphazard throwing away of our cultural deposit has led to disastrous results, including millions dead all over the world.  We realized the imperfection of said deposit, but then proceeded to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  It seems that to Sokurov, communism was a seventy year hibernation of Russian culture and identity and now it is up to modern Russians to wake up and take back the wonderful culture that was theirs.  His ideas hearken back to Edmund Burke who wrote about the importance of the British monarchy as a symbol of British stability and continuity, although I assume he's not quite a czarist at this point in history.  The movie does noticeably exclude the "lower class" Russians of history.  There is something beautiful, yet ostentatious in the Russian nobility.  Do their rituals lose something when we do not see the counterbalance of the rest of Russia?  Yes, but the movie still makes its conclusions better than anything I've seen even if it does come off as a little elitist.

All in all, Russian Ark is one of the more interesting movies that I have seen.  It is challenging and very esoteric, yet beautiful and worth a try for any viewer.

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