Dreamy waltz through Russian history

"Russian Ark," directed by Alexander Sokurov, begins with a 20th-century man inexplicably wandering through the opulent rooms and corridors of the Winter Palace, built for the czars in the 18th century.

Uncertain how he got there, he meets a French aristocrat from the 1800s, and the two embark on a meandering discussion of the European and Russian past, witnessing scenes from history as they stroll through the building. Alexander III dines with his family, heedless of revolution brewing outside. Persian envoys apologize for aggression in an interminable ceremony.

Catherine the Great looks for a bathroom. Dignified servants prepare an extravagant buffet.

Contemporary reality also creeps in, as when the visitors unexpectedly spy a group of latter-day Russian officials. But the spectacle reaches its climax in a glowingly nostalgic way, with an army of dancers waltzing at the royal ball of 1913.

Throughout their journey, the time travelers debate social, political, and aesthetic issues. The aristocrat expresses Western ambivalence toward Russian history, while the Russian muses on his country's connection to its troubled past, and to the complex European past that has unfolded alongside it.

Lest this sound like a dry history lesson, rest assured that "Russian Ark" is one of the most dazzlingly beautiful movies ever made.

Sokurov has filmed it in a single shot lasting about 93 minutes, setting an all-time record in a bravura feat that required new video technology - not to mention the huge logistical achievement of coordinating hundreds of actors and extras to hit their positions and speak their lines with split-second precision.

This is no mere stunt, moreover. Gathering so much time and space into a single flowing shot is Sokurov's way of exploring the meanings and mechanisms of time itself, which has fascinated him for years. It also gives moviegoers an unparalleled visual experience, making you feel as if you're floating on a gossamer cultural cloud.

Like the Ark of the Bible, the imperial buildings of old St. Petersburg have carried a select group of inhabitants through turbulent currents of time and tide, and Sokurov has captured their essence in this awe-inspiring film.

It won't play in multiplexes everywhere, but it's having a national US run courtesy of the aptly named Wellspring Films, and is well worth seeing on the wide screen before its video release next year. It's guaranteed to take your breath away.

Not rated; contains no objectionable material.

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