It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Every review of "Russian Ark" begins by discussing its method. The movie consists of one unbroken shot lasting the entire length of the film, as a camera glides through the Hermitage, the repository of Russian art and history in St. Petersburg. The cinematographer Tillman Buttner, using a Steadicam and high-def digital technology, joined with some 2,000 actors in an tight-wire act in which every mark and cue had to be hit without fail; there were two broken takes before the third time was the charm.
The subject of the film, which is written, directed and (in a sense) hosted by Alexander Sokurov, is no less than three centuries of Russian history. The camera doesn't merely take us on a guided tour of the art on the walls and in the corridors, but witnesses many visitors who came to the Hermitage over the years. Apart from anything else, this is one of the best-sustained ideas I have ever seen on the screen. Sokurov reportedly rehearsed his all-important camera move again and again with the cinematographer, the actors and the invisible sound and lighting technicians, knowing that the Hermitage would be given to him for only one precious day.
After a dark screen and the words "I open my eyes and I see nothing," the camera's eye opens upon the Hermitage and we meet the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), a French nobleman who will wander through the art and the history as we follow him. The voice we heard, which belongs to the never-seen Sokurov, becomes a foil for the Marquis, who keeps up a running commentary. What we see is the grand sweep of Russian history in the years before the Revolution, and a glimpse of the grim times afterwards.
It matters little, I think, if we recognize all of the people we meet on this journey; such figures as Catherine II and Peter the Great are identified (Catherine, like many another museum visitor, is searching for the loo), but some of the real people who play themselves, like Mikhail Piotrovsky, the current director of the Hermitage, work primarily as types. We overhear whispered conversations, see state functions, listen as representatives of the Shah apologize to Nicholas I for the killing of Russian diplomats, even see little flirtations.