“Russian Ark” is a thoroughly boring movie pegged to a technological novelty: the 87-minute feature was shot in a single take using a special high-definition video camera. Unfortunately, the film is not being projected in digital video for its theatrical release, but is instead being shown in a 35mm print where reel changes create hiccups in the continuity. (The transfer from HD to 35mm also creates a fairly muddy color palette.) So much for being digitally clever.
Director Alexander Sokurov (whose last film was the equally monotonous “Taurus”) invented a bizarre story in which an unseen contemporary Russian inexplicably finds himself in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage in the company of a boorish 19th century French diplomat; the film is intended as the contemporary Russian’s POV. The unlikely duo wander from room to room where they encounter a mix of Russians from various eras. In one room, there’s Peter the Great, in another there’s Catherine the Great, in another there’s Nicholas and Alexandra, and then in another there are modern day Russians gazing at the Hermitage’s celebrated art collection. The crash of centuries occurs without any rhyme or reason, creating further confusion. The French diplomat (a bedraggled-looking Sergey Dreiden, speaking Russian without any trace of a French accent while bearing a striking resemblance to the Scarecrow in “The Turkish Wizard of Oz”) amuses himself by sniffing the paintings with a fetishist fervor and annoying the various people of the different eras. The unseen contemporary Russian, speaking in hushed tones, is embarrassed by his French comrade but never gets around to asking him to behave properly.
For the most part, “Russian Ark” is little more than a travelogue designed to show off the grandeur of the Hermitage, with the silly actors in fancy costumes getting in the way of the paintings and sculptures on display. It is a pity Sokurov didn’t make a straightforward documentary on the Hermitage and its rich history instead of creating this not-very-interesting novelty film. Indeed, anyone outside of St. Petersburg who wants to see the Hermitage without wasting time and money on “Russian Ark” can click their browsers to www.hermitage.ru and enjoy the best digital tour of the mighty museum available.