[box cover]

Russian Ark

Of course, it's been done before — Alfred Hitchcock tried to film a 90-minute movie in "one" take way back in 1948 with the one-room murder-mystery Rope. Fascinated by the technical challenge of fashioning elaborate long shots (admittedly during a time when the director was entering creative lull), Hitch used similar camerawork in 1949's Under Capricorn. But he abandoned the experiment soon after, convinced that the robust language of cinema simply requires editing, much like the written word needs punctuation. However, the lesson of the master did not deter Aleksandr Sokurov — the Russian filmmaker wanted to do Hitch (and the cinema world) one better by creating a movie "in one breath." After all, Hitchcock shot Rope using seamless 10-minute takes — required by how much film a camera could actually hold, but also a series of convenient pauses that made the entire process much easier. With the arrival of digital cameras, Sokurov realized he could achieve a long-held ambition by creating, quite literally, a real-time, one-shot film. And the result is not a bunch of people sitting around a coffee shop or a drive in the country — Russian Ark (2002) would be a notable picture by conventional standards. Instead, it's a remarkable foray into experimental cinema that's bound to be discussed for decades. Sokurov's film doesn't have much of a plot, per se: A nameless, unseen narrator (the director himself provides the voice) describes a horrible accident that has robbed him of his recent memory. At some point he awakens in St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum (an extension of the grand Winter Palace), where he finds 19th century aristocrats gathering for a ball. Soon he encounters another wanderer, a French diplomat (Sergei Dontsov) who also finds himself caught out of time. He recalls when the great museum was nearly destroyed by a fire — an event that apparently has yet to happen. The narrator follows the diplomat, and the two find themselves squabbling about Russia, Europe, art, and history. They also encounter historical figures, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicolas II, in a journey that seems to effortlessly traverse several hundred years of history with every new room. While Russian Ark has earned widespread praise on the art-house circuit, it should be stressed that, for all of its visual grandeur, it is very much an art film, and an experimental one at that. There is nothing at all in the way of plot. The narrator simply follows the diplomat from one room to the next, where they find themselves caught up in conversations (or quarrels) with various other patrons before moving onward. And while the Russian audio means that English-speaking folks will likely want to have the subtitles on, it's still easy to notice that Sokurov often dampens the dialogue to mere whispers, perhaps hoping to mask the exact nature of certain discussions. It's not going to be for everyone, but those who consider themselves cineastes should give Russian Ark a spin — it's a lovely, at times hypnotic journey through one of the most magnificent buildings on the face of the earth. Wellspring's DVD release features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with either DD 5.1 or 2.0 stereo audio. Features include a fascinating "making-of" documentary (43 min.) that chronicles this acrobatic work of cinema — more than 2,000 actors were brought to the Hermitage for a shoot that would only last just one day, and which was completed after three aborted takes (and a great deal of stress on everyone's part). The additional documentary "Mon Paradis, Der Winterpalast" (47 min.) offers an offbeat look at the folks who live near and work at the Hermitage. Producer Jens Meurer delivers behind-the-camera details in a commentary track, while additional interview footage and the theatrical trailer also are included. Keep-case.

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