Holiday Movie Preview: Russian Ark

STARRING: Sergei Dontsov, Maksim Sergeyev, Mariya Kuznetsova DIRECTED BY: Alexander Sokurov

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This could have been just the greatest, daftest, most elaborate stunt in movie history--a single, unbroken, 87-min. Steadicam shot that winds and pirouettes as it accompanies an unseen narrator and a 19th century French marquis (Sergei Dontsov) through 33 rooms of the State Hermitage Museum in an attempt both to give us a tour of the St. Petersburg palace's artistic treasures and to encapsulate three centuries of Russian history, of the Czars and commoners who lived, worked, danced, suffered and died in those sumptuous rooms and labyrinthine corridors--but because Alexander Sokurov is as much an artist and storyteller as he is a magician-technician, viewers can forget the absurd degree of difficulty in the logistical challenge of keeping nearly a thousand extras and dozens of crew members out of the way of Tilman Buttner's high-definition digital camera and instead go along for the ride in this regal fun house--madhouse, as Buttner rushes after a Czar's children or pauses to scrutinize a Van Dyck Madonna or performs his own virtuoso minuet when he enters the Nicholas Hall to discover a ballroom full of whirling aristocrats who dance the night away and finally exit down the grand staircase and out of the palace at dawn for a coda that will have the movie's audience gasping in exhilarated exhaustion, whispering astonished gratitude to Sokurov for having created vigorous art out of 21st century video technique and asking themselves, "What's the Russian word for Wow!?" --R.C.