Russian Ark (2002)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental  |   Sub-Genres - Historical Epic  |   Release Date - Oct 18, 2002 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 95 min.  |   Countries - Germany , Russia   |   MPAA Rating - G
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Review by Josh Ralske

Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is an amazing accomplishment, and clearly made with passion, but while the film is sure to be hailed as a masterpiece by some, its narrative conceit isn't nearly as interesting as the technical feat of its creation. The result is a unique and intelligent film with sporadic moments of transcendent beauty that fails to create a strong emotional connection with its audience. It's essentially a 96-minute museum tour, with the added benefit of time travel and wax figures that briefly come to life. But wax figures are all they are, essentially. Sokurov, as though following a hasty guide, spends so little time with the historical figures he portrays that it often feels as though he's moving on just as you begin to figure out who and what you're watching. The Russian experience of World War II, for example, is portrayed with a brief stop in a foreboding, ghostly room filled with coffins. The filmmaker is known for his lugubrious pacing, but Russian Ark has the odd distinction of seeming both slow paced and rushed. It moves slowly and mournfully, but still only glances across the surface of the eras it portrays. It's a demanding film, encompassing a wealth of Russian history and art history between its first and final frames. Those who stay with it will be rewarded in the end by a gorgeously mounted ball, in which the camera gracefully slides among elaborately costumed dancers as the orchestra plays. It's a deeply felt irony that this transcendent moment of joy takes place on the eve of the Russian revolution, and the world of these briefly glimpsed characters is about to come crashing to an end. It's a shame that the film has few moments where form and content align so powerfully.