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Marquis Marked: Sergey Dreiden plays a Frenchman wandering the halls of the Hermitage in 'Russian Ark.'

One-Shot Masterpiece

'Russian Ark': Three centuries, 96 minutes, one shot

By Richard von Busack

THE SENTIMENTAL GHOSTS in popular fiction always haunt lost loves. Rarely do we see ghosts expressing what we think of as our innermost self--the part of us that doesn't yearn for company. In the movies, ghosts usually don't haunt the places that drew them when they were alive: libraries, movie theaters or museums. The glorious new film Russian Ark is such a rare ghost story, of two spirits haunting the Hermitage.

A complex that includes the Winter Palace, the St. Petersburg residence of the Russian czars, the Hermitage is today a world-famous art and history museum. Director Alexandr Sokurov prowls this space to search for the spirit of his nation. Safe from the misery and economic misfortune outside in modern Russia, these two phantoms have room to think. They regard the paintings, as well as the pageantry of the 300-year history of the Hermitage, which unfolds around them as they stroll.

We don't learn much about the freshly dead--or perhaps deeply dreaming--narrator, but his companion is a Frenchman of the 1800s. He's called the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden, who recalls Stephen Rea). He may be Talleyrand (1754-1838), a tenacious diplomat of such guile as to make Henry Kissinger look like Lassie. As a foreign observer, the Marquis tempts out the question of the history and destiny of Russia. He whispers as he sidles past Catherine the Great (Maria Kuznetsova). He's delighted by the uniforms at a lavish Victorian ball, with marabou plumes, mauve gowns, gold braids and coronets ("Beautiful uniforms, even if I don't like the military" he says). He murmurs commentary as a czar of all the Russias attends an important conference, with all his hussars around him.

Sokurov captures this masterpiece in one uncut 96-minute scene. It's shot with a Sony HDW-F900 camera, equipped with a prototype special disk drive built to record for 100 minutes, without compression. Cameraman Tilman Büttner, who was the steady-cam operator on Run Lola Run, fluidly negotiates the turns and stairwells of the palace. Sokurov claims "no cut = director's cut." But the feat of setting up, in essence, 33 studios to be entered in real time is less important than the film itself.

Such is the fascination of seeing this nexus of history and art that you quite forget what a technical breakthrough Russian Ark is until the grand final procession, the aftermath of a ball letting out into the chill of dawn (and of course, into the Great War and the revolution). At the end, we learn why the museum is called an ark, containing what's saved from the tides of Russian history: the sieges, the insane governments, the arctic weather. The film's idea of the Hermitage is as a point of calm in the torrent, with 300 years seen "in one breath," Sokurov says. Certainly, Russian Ark will take your breath away.

Russian Ark (Unrated; 96 min.), directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, written by Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina and Sokurov, photographed by Tilman Büttner and starring Sergey Dreiden, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the February 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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