A narrator who is never seen (voiced by director Alexander Sokurov, who co-wrote the screenplay) finds himself back in time after an accident he can't remember. He is at the Winter Palace in the early 1700s as officers and their ladies are dressed for a ball. He meets the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), a French diplomat who attended the Palace in a different time period. The camera follows the revelers and then glides and sweeps through corridors and rooms and through the centuries. The French stranger guides the narrator through the Palace, giving his frank opinions on Russian history and culture. While the narrator is not seen by others, the Marquis can interact whenever he wishes.
An abusive tyrant turns out to be Czar Peter the Great. Catherine the Great (Maria Kuznetsova) interrupts an elaborate theatrical production being performed for a small audience. In the film's enthralling snapshots of Russian history, events are visited out of historical order. The visitors see contemporary tourists, pass through the Soviet era and view Russia's final Imperial rulers Nicholas II and Alexandra with their family. "Ark" assumes some background in Russian history as there is not much explanation of the historical context of the people the visitors encounter.
Rich in the colorful and opulent costumes and historical details of the Imperial eras, this film, unlike Sokurov's earlier work, moves at a lively pace. "Russian Ark" gives an intriguing if fragmented view of Russian history viewed through the extraordinary cinematography of Tilman Buttner ("Run, Lola, Run"). Starring Sergey Dreiden, Maria Kuznetsova and Leonid Piotrovsky. Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Written by Anatoly Nikiforov and Alexander Sokurov. Produced by Andrey Deryabin. A Wellspring release. Drama. Russian-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 98 min