Is it possible to recommend a film solely on the basis of its technical ability? That's the question that Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark" ultimately poses, since its central draw is a staggering feat of cinematography. It uses a single, continuous shot that takes you through St Petersburg's Hermitage museum into the dark recesses of Russian history.
A contemporary filmmaker (unseen but voiced by Sokurov) is mysteriously cast back into the past where he meets a 19th century foreign diplomat (Sergey Dreiden).
Together they wander through the Hermitage, admiring the art, eavesdropping on conversations, spying on Russian royalty, and slowly traversing Russian history from the 18th century to the present.
As exciting plots go, this is something of a non-starter. As we walk along the art-laden corridors and catch glimpses of historical personages - like Peter the Great, Catherine the First, and Tsar Nicholas II - there's very little in the way of character, plot, or action.
Instead Sokurov offers a dazzling display of choreography as hundreds of extras effortlessly hit their marks, keeping the single shot unbroken (the first two attempts were ruined by technical problems). Whirling through crowds, racing up staircases, meandering through art galleries, and snowy courtyards, Sokurov's camera performs a scintillating ballet that covers 1500 square metres and over 35 different rooms.
With so little action on display the film's meditations on the nation's history, art, and politics frequently become tedious.
Yet, in the film's grand finale, such doubts are swept aside as the camera waltzes its way through a packed ballroom full of dancers, weaving around them before finally following their departure down the building's majestic central staircase.
It is a beautiful and haunting sequence that turns the stupefying into the spectacular.
Martin Scorsese once asked why America couldn't make movies like Sokurov's. The answer to that question seems blindingly obvious.
In Russian with English subtitles.