A Russian Charon

in 21st Torino Film Festival

by László Kriston

A charon in ancient Greek mythology is a ferryman who guides an ark through the river of Lethe and so brings recently deceased people from one riverside to another, the world of dead. Sokurov, a mystical master of film, plays a similar role in contemporary cinema, his unique voice seems to spread from the board of his ark, somewhere in-between. He acts as a sort of guardian angel responsible for our awareness of death: it is often ignored that many of his films, either features or so-called documentaries (the elegiacs), are reports on the death experience as a state of consciousness, an event experienced by his unseen narrators. Laszlo Kriston provides a speculative take on a less apparent and extremely enigmatic level of meaning of Sokurov’s movies.

His movies not only talk about death (as in ‘The Second Circle’, ‘Taurus’ etc.) but show death as a transient experience that leads away from the known, familiar physical world and takes us to terra incognita.

At the beginning of ‘Russian Ark’ (2002), the narrator mumbles about some accident, and expresses his embarrassment because he doesn’t really know how he got into this place (the Hermitage). Throughout the film he tells a couple of times that he cannot control his move, and not able to hear everything correctly. He sweeps through the whole palace in a delirium, not entirely in command over the experience. ‘Father and Son’ (2003) opens with a dream-like vision, a son visiting a field, and answering another voice which keeps asking him what he is seeing there. In the next moment the son opens his eyes and finds himself in the arms of his father, the relentless questioner of the previous moments, finally asking: ‘Are you back now?’. ‘Oriental Elegy’ (1996) follows a meditative journey where, once again, the process of reaching a Far-Eastern island is rather a matter of a focusing the mind than of walking. In ‘Elegy of a Voyage’ (2001), the narrator gives voice to his despair in the most apparent way of all the above-mentioned scenes: he even laments on the reason of the seemingly unintentional progress in space in which he mysteriously finds himself to be a passive participant. ‘What force has taken me here? Who is playing me so freely?”, he asks.

We, the viewers, have as little knowledge about these mostly unseen narrators as they have minimal understanding of the circumstances (occasionally we see one of them but only from behind or looking down at his feet due to a camerawork based on a subjective view point). Identity and place are both irrelevant factors in these visionary mystical routes.

What is the point of this re-occurring motif in his films emphasizing the lack of sense of place and direction, over and over again? In the case of a disciplined artist, as Sokurov, such a ‘leitmotif’ must have a purpose, let alone definitive meaning, despite the fact that his films made with austere style are easy to loose and are open to countless interpretations.


What is ‘Russian Ark’ supposed to mean? Time-travel gives most of the critics an obvious solution, a sonorous, yet simplistic explanation. Hardly a coincidence, that the ark (emphasized even in the film’s title), is the transportation vehicle of the Charon.

An unedited, one-take movie, or a ‘one-breath’ one, as Sokurov often reflects, provides a compendium of an epoch. It represents a spirit of the time (zeitgeist) in an organic way, as if such a thing would be an entity on its own – more than the sum of its parts (the gestures, the dialogue, the style, the locations, the characters, the paintings). This ever-moving camera itself is the ark (“It feels like we’re floating,” says a young women), an ark on which the Marquis de Custine (the only character who is aware of the narrator’s presence) sweeps through time and history – as at this side of the river ‘Lethe’, in the world of eternity, one can visit every possible dimension of space and time.

At the end of the journey, after visiting the recent times in an exhibition hall where contemporary dressed people of our time watch the masterpieces of art, the Marquis finds his place, returns to the Tsarist age, and finally declares: ‘I am staying, I feel so good here’.

A voice from the other side

What makes Sokurov able to depict the strange experiences of meditative journeys of this kind? Besides his profoundly mystical way of thinking (“What always interests me is just those feelings that only a spiritual person could experience”), the thing is that he pretty much lives in his own universe. He is not interested in politics at all, couldn’t care less about the spirit of the present time. He is very much separated from all the things that surround him in his physical life. He finds himself most comfortable when focusing on his own overwhelming love and affection for 19th century romantic art. Having this special, altered state of consciousness, he is the ultimate time-traveller himself. Thus, he can delicately resonate the sense of belonging to some other time, other space and other state of mind by shifting us into a heightened state of trance-like awareness in surreal dreamscapes.

Auteur Mystica

The auteur theory of the 60s, a common stock among cinephiles, in the 21st century will make a quantum leap to a spiritual level, towards the understanding of the type of great artists who have a mesmerizingly superhuman or extraterrestrial world view. A point of view that probably an angel, a demiurge, god, or even the evil can have. As in 20th century art in general, Bartok, Joyce, Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Picasso, a few of the most extraordinary examples of artists reflecting superhuman perspectives, even though not all them could be considered deeply spiritual individuals. Bergman, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Cronenberg, Argento, Tim Burton, Vincent Ward, or in this sense even Spielberg and Lucas (among others) has many things in common with them. At their best, they give the most remarkable examples of unearthly voices in cinema. Their work cannot be properly examined without any enquiries regarding their spiritual inclinations.

Sokurov is a quintessentially holistic artist. He puts our physical life into a broader, metaphysical context in a way that his misty films (with the slipping contours of objects, with the unidentified force behind the skipping through space, with the puzzled narrators wandering around) tend to resemble the transience to those immaterial fields as well as the actual existence on those other spheres. This approach fits into our weak awareness of every kind of altered state of consciousness (whether it is a dream, a dejá vu and so on), of which we barely have a sharp recollection, since our perception is dominated by the daytime function of our mind. A Sokurov film is a highly memorable, yet often disturbing journey in which we embark on an ark heading towards those hidden, sub-conscious levels of the immortal human soul.

“Art prepares a person for death”, gives Sokurov his ars poetica. When we (film critics?) die, entering the other side, we may not feel that lost and helpless like Sokurov’s shadowy, narrating figures, because we will remember that in the cinema a Russian Charon told us how it feels when you get there, and what it is all about.