The single-take stunt tracking shot — Look Ma, no cuts! — is the official high-wire act of flamboyant directorial virtuosity. Patented in Hitchcock’s ”Rope” (1948), the technique was nudged into the baroque realm of hothouse art with the amazing opening shot of Welles’ ”Touch of Evil,” followed by ”GoodFellas,” the kickoff to every third De Palma film, and so on. But it was only with the advent of digital technology that the notion of an entire film done in a single take became possible. Mike Figgis got there first with ”Time Code,” and now the Russian director Alexander Sokurov has brought off a comparably startling feat with ”Russian Ark.”
For 96 minutes, the camera roams through — and, occasionally, outside — the palatial splendor of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, swirling past an ethereal costume-pageant dream of Russian history from the 18th to the early 20th century. The movie is a meditation on the love and envy that Russia has always felt toward Europe, and I won’t pretend I got more than 30 percent of what was going on. Yet the ironic meaning of Sokurov’s film may be found in what is left off screen: virtually any sign of Russian life in the Soviet century. The final sequence is an incandescent ballroom mazurka that Sokurov’s roving camera turns into an aristocratic vision of heaven. It struck me as a statement, unwitting or otherwise, on Communism as the modern Fall.