Flitting through 33 rooms, occupied by over 2,000 costumed characters, this is a moving tableau chronicling both momentous events and intimate incidents from Russian history - from the pomp of Peter and Catherine The Great, to the fall of the Tsars and the revolution.
It's not often that an arthouse film finds its way into the Guinness Book of Records. But in completing this sublime mastepiece of form and content in a single 96-minute take, Alexander Sokurov easily surpassed the 35 minutes it took Viva and Louis Waldon to make love in Andy Warhol's Blue Movie.
He cheated, of course, as Tilman Büttner's high-definition digital video camera wasn't hindered by the need to change reels every 10 minutes. But what was more important than the longevity of the take was the balletic ingenuity of the Steadicam movements, the sumptuous recreation of Russia's imperial and Soviet yesteryears, and the majestic use of the Hermitage Museum that once housed the Romanov dynasty. Whether pursuing royals, eavesdropping on courtiers or perusing priceless paintings, this truly was poetry in motion. Yet Sukurov could speak only of his disappointment at not being allowed to use the 4000 extras he had originally envisaged and his submission to the producers' insistence that his direct soundtrack was dubbed in a German studio. He even accused Büttner of making mistakes during the course of the two kilometres he walked during the shoot because he was essentially a technician and not an artist. Yet, to less demanding eyes, the `philharmonic cinematography' required to capture the endless stream of overlapping, flashbacking vignettes was not only intricately ingenious, but also evocative, exhilarating, mesmeric and deeply moving. However, there were critics who, while applauding the logistical and choreographic precision involved, accused Sukurov of conducting a self-indulgent experiment that constantly kept the viewer at a distance from even the pivotal characters inhabiting what was essentially a pageant. It was also claimed that he had trivialised the theory of mise-en-scène espoused by André Bazin and employed in the pursuit of truth by such mentors as Robert Flaherty, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman.
But such rigid academicism was as petty as Sokurov's own criticism of Tilman Büttner. Whatever its intellectual, dramatic or technical shortcomings, this was an exceptional cinematic achievement and, sometimes, that should simply be enough.
Russian Ark won't appeal to everyone, but anyone with an eye for beauty, a yearning for the past or a passion for pure cinema is going to be spellbound.