Sokurov's novel idea was to take the viewer through 300 years of Russian history in a tour of St. Petersburg's magnificent Hermitage Museum. But as Sokurov astutely notes in an interview in the DVD release of the 2002 film, it's a mistake to get caught up in the enormity of the project or the success of its execution. (The crew snagged it on the fourth take after three missteps, just as they were losing the light and batteries were running out of juice.) The movie should be judged on its own merit, Sokurov argues; if it doesn't resonate with the viewer, all the rest is pointless.
"The film is very simple," he says. "Everything is clear. There's a lot of music in it. It contains simple thoughts expressed in simple terms. But they should evoke very deep emotions."
In a cinematic shot that should be heard and seen 'round the world,explores a nation's art, culture and history while interpreting its complicated relationship with Europe. Russia is a massive country spanning portions of both Europe and Asia, but its European roots intrigue Sokurov the most. He illustrates this with a French marquis (Sergei Donstov) guiding an unknown, unseen Russian visitor (voiced by Sokurov) throughout the museum. The visitor, essentially looking through a Steadicam camera (operated by German cinematographer Tilman Büttner) follows the marquis from room to room -- leading the viewer past stunning works of art and mini-dramas of Russian history played out by the cast.
One moment we're witnessing Peter the Great -- who ruled in the late 17th and early 18th centuries -- displaying his famous temper as he slaps an aid to the ground. This sets up one of several exchanges between the dismissive Frenchmen and the defensive Russian, who protests, "[Peter] taught everyone to enjoy themselves." The marquis responds, "Peter ordered his son's execution. The same man who taught people to enjoy life. How funny." History, Sokurov suggests, is never as tidy as we'd like it to be.
Throughout the film, the marquis both admires and criticizes the museum, whether it's the imported art works or the structure itself -- much to the consternation of the unseen Russian visitor. With good reason; often the marquis, despite the visitor's pleas, finds himself an unwanted guest as he is often ordered out of rooms and constantly tailed by a Russian spy. Undaunted, he roams about the place, clearly mesmerized by what he sees.
The film hits a visual and historical apex when they wander into a massive, gold-colored room with parquet floors, in which a Persian ambassador, speaking for Fetkh-Ali-Shah, is offering an apology to 19th century ruler Nicholas I for the murder of Russian diplomats. The two strangers thread their way through rows of dignitaries. It is a spectacle unto itself, with honor guards drawing their swords in unison and the royal court standing by.
Obviously, all this Russian art, culture and history might fall strangely on unstudied American ears and eyes; at times,feels like one big inside joke for the less than cultured. But there are still lessons to be learned here, both big and small, about how all these elements are interrelated. As Sokurov points out in an interview, "The Hermitage is culture as art, and culture as life. I believe that no other museum in the world embodies life and art so clearly and obviously. History and life, history and art. Only the Hermitage does this."
Hence, the museum is the titular ark of its nation, carrying with it a heritage that will transport it into the future. After the climactic scene -- a sweeping ball, whose end feels like the end of a party, an era and the film itself -- the doors open to a foggy sea as the Russian insists, "We are destined to sail forever. To live forever."
The dreamy feel of the film, along with its lag of cuts, edits and changes of angle, may also be an acquired taste for the average movie-goer. But it has a rhythm and mood all to itself, and one that can only be experienced on the big screen. (In other words, unless you're one of those big-screen owners, don't buy the DVD just yet; you'd be seriously disappointed.)
is a magical history tour, and not just a triumph of production and cinematic technique. It's also a sophisticated and poetic comment on how a culture relates to the rest of the world. It's not just a history lesson; it's a lesson for the ages.