Russian Ark

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Movie Review by Alice Castle

Starring: Sergei Dontsov, Sergey Dreiden, Anna Aleksakhina, Maria Kuznetsova

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

It is said that if you spent 30 seconds looking at every painting in the Hermitage Gallery in St Petersburg you would never come out alive. The art gallery, which was once the Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars, is gigantic and every room is packed full of sumptuous sculptures and elaborately framed paintings. As St Petersburg celebrates its 300th birthday, Alexander Sokurov dedicates his film to its expansive beauty. The film is cut in one single unedited take – a great feat that meant hundreds of actors had to be immaculately rehearsed. The camera follows a wry French diplomat through Russian history as he walks from room to room. We meet Catherine the Great and her theatrical entourage, Peter the Great the city’s founder, feel the cold winds of the Nazi invasion and the terrible siege of Leningrad when the Hermitage was boarded up to protect its treasures. History though seems to end at the close of the Great Patriotic War and the Socialist Realism of the 30s and 40s when art was used as a political weapon is ignored, as are the events of recent Russian history.

While fascinating to watch the characters can be confusing and the narration difficult to follow, as the director guiding the camera follows the French diplomat around the building opening doors and walking out of shot. Historical events are out of sequence and unless you are very familiar with Russian history some of the more subtle points can be lost. As a showcase for the wonders of the art gallery it is remarkable and the film culminates in a marvellously choreographed ball scene – the Tsar’s last ball of 1913 in fact – reminiscent of all the finest evenings of nineteenth century high society Russia. As the guests spill out of the ballroom and down the stairs into the courtyard leaving the Palace behind, the feeling is that a whole system of extravagance and privilege is about to die. And what is left is the Russian Ark.

3 out of 6 stars