“ Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy - Fantasy / Universal, suitable for all / Director: Alexandr Sokurov / Actors: Sergei Dreiden, Lev Yeliseyev, Maria Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky ... / DVD released 2003-09-29 at Artificial Eye / Features of the DVD: PAL, Widescreen „
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Russian Ark is a wonderful presentation of the 300 year history of St Petersburg, told in one glorious sweeping shot at the Winter Palace. It features an unnamed narrator who we believe to be dead and now a ghost, moving constantly through the Palace, each room or corridor indicating a different period in time for the city. Our narrator is accompanied by a mysterious man in black who serves as a sort of guide through the Palace, and also provides some explanation for the visuals.
This mysterious man becomes known as 'The European' as he is talking in a tongue that the narrator can only pinpoint as European, despite being able to understand the words spoken. He is said to indicate the Marquis de Custine, a French traveller. Through these two, we sometimes see interaction between them and the characters on screen, although at other times they pass unnoticed as if they are mere ghosts. Interaction is usually limited to being ushered along as if they weren't supposed to be there, although there is a long and flowing sequence towards the end where there is a great dance in the main hall which features dozens of people and focuses on the European who seems to take centre stage.
I had to check to see exactly what I was looking at, Russian history not being my strong point. Scenes featuring Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Nicholas I and other rulers and leaders are intermingled with coronations, desperation during Stalin's rule and the name changes of the city to Leningrad and then Petrograd before returning back to St Petersburg again. I imagine we're supposed to experience both highs and lows for the city, but what is presented remains as beautiful a flowing film as I have seen. Initially this is impressive and captivating, but I must admit that at points I did wish for something a little different in presentation. I wouldn't say this is the sort of film to sit down and watch on a Friday evening, for example. It's more the sort of thing to watch if you're curious about Russian history or wish to enhance your understanding of St Petersburg's culture. You could even watch it in installments, I'm just saying that it's not an all action film or one to snuggle up to for a romantic evening. It's more of a historical perspective than anything else.
The analogy of the title is often considered as such as Noah's Ark, where things are stored for preservation, and the film is treated like this. It's as if the filmmaker was creating a safe haven for some of the more precious and important parts of the city's history, storing them in the Ark for historical preservation and then displaying it to us as an encompassing whole, 2 hours to tell a 300 year story. It works very well and gives an excellent overview in visual terms, I just found it hard to know exactly what I was watching, so I had to keep checking. It was certainly educational and something I'd encourage those who learn through visualisation very well to watch if they are students of Russian history.
If you're after something beautiful but only mildly entertaining then this is it. If you're after your attention kept riveted for a couple of hours then I would look elsewhere. The educational and appreciation elements of this are top level, but this is where it stops. Great for what it is, and recommended.