The film departs from such semi-essayistic Sokurov works as Oriental Elegy (1996), and although it shares certain illustrated-history aspirations with Whispering Pages (1993), it is simultaneously more realist – comprised of one single take with elaborately staged actors as opposed to the layered, foggy imagery of Whispering Pages – and more artificial, because the splendour of a vanished Imperial Russia is vividly and splendidly re-created. By comparison, not much in *Whispering Pages is either vivid or splendid.
If we are wont to think of Russian Ark as a documentary, then it is reasonable to see it as a scrupulous recording of an insanely elaborate performance. As a piece of choreography this is impressive, and although the camera seems to be handheld it never feels wandering à la cinéma-vérité, but instead moves steadily along a clear path, always finding exactly what it needs to maintain rhythm and momentum. Because of this sense that the whole film is really a gorgeous bit of choreography for the camera, Russian Ark seems to be an ambitious attempt to fuse the aesthetics of theatre and cinema. Without the structure and linkage between rooms that the camera brings, such a performance is unmanageable; without the theatrical spectacle of the re-enactments, the film is just a minimalist trip through Russia’s most prized heritage repository.
But finally, I think, it is documentary aesthetics that give the most memorable moments of Russian Ark their impact (despite the film’s artificial voiceover). One sequence in which the Persian ambassador is received in a grand hall to apologise for the murder of Russians in a Tehran riot moves from close-ups of the Russian troops on the wings to gorgeous, shaky long shots of Persian noblemen and their guards hanging in the background. The final scene, a giant concert where the camera moves in and out of the crowd, gives us a similar, although much more exhilarating, mixture of intimacy and grandeur. This is documentary at its best, and Sokurov, without embracing the form entirely, has managed to re-open our eyes to its power.