Hermitage: The Power of Art opens with hyperbole, telling us that the realms of time and space are lost here. Over the top? Maybe, but it’s not too big a leap to make. Having visited in November I can testify to the mammoth collections and the labyrinthine layout.

So what I found neat about The Power of Art is that it efficiently manages to give as succinct an overview as it can in less than 90 minutes, intertwining aspects of Russian history that are so important to understanding the Hermitage and the city it inhabits.

That’s no easy feat. It’s said that if you spend a minute looking at each item, over the course of eight hour days, it would take you 15 years before you view everything. That’s just the exhibitions on display.

But what’s good here is that the documentary doesn’t want to show you everything. Nor does it want to take you on a guided tour. It wants you to understand the building’s influence on St Petersburg, Russia and Europe; art, culture and upheaval.

It needs to show you that the building is a living, breathing documentation of history, with living, breathing pieces still inhabiting its walls. We don’t need to see it all; we just need to understand it.

I’m not sure how objective I’m being though given I have a low-key, recent sense of the place. If you’ve not visited, I don’t know how interesting this would be and, to be honest, Toni Servillo could tell me I have a terminal illness and it would feel comforting.

But the way the main building, The Winter Palace, is portrayed as a character in its own right, with the documentary cleverly weaving in exhibitions that reflect Russia’s past alongside context of the works themselves, is a tidy and seemingly sensible approach.

That’s not to say it’s perfect, though; far from it. It’s gets a bit claggy through the middle. And it may sound reductive, but I imagine this is as good as a straightforward, ‘in-the-box’ documentary about a museum can be. There’s nothing extraordinary here.

That said, this released a week after a similar museum retrospective, Prado: A Collection of Wonders, which makes this look likethe Citizen Kane of documentaries.

This, a relatively elegant meander through world-renowned collections from da Vinci to Van Dyck, smoothly narrated in Italian by Toni Servillo. That, a detached jog through Madrid’s Prado as Jeremy Irons stands in darkness grunting and pointing at (pretty much) everything and, at the same time, absolutely nothing.

It seems like damning The Power of Art with faint praise, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s a solid film and that’s to its credit. But, what’s the point in it? What’s the point in watching a film about a museum? It’s a valid question; it’s not the most thrilling subject in the world.

Aside from the obvious solution of giving accessibility for people who aren’t able to go, the best answer I can give is one word: context. Or, better yet: understanding.

Put it this way, I wish I had watched this before I went. Not to the Hermitage, but to Russia. Museums are a reflection of the past, but the Hermitage is a reflection of many pasts and its story goes far beyond its walls.

Its position explains the importance of each street; its influence echoes through the lives of intellectuals and through classics by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, as well as countless others. Its palatial interior unfurls the rich tapestry of Russian history, how and when it played its part in extraordinary events.  

The documentary doesn’t have to be special, the building already is. But the film gives you an insight into Russia’s wealth, its destitution; its monarchy; its republic; its losses; its victories; its politics; its citizenry; its culture; its character. It’s not about the Hermitage and its millions of works of art, it’s about culture: St Petersburg’s, Russia’s, Europe’s, the world’s. And that is its greatest strength.

Dir: Michele Mally

Scr: Didi Gnocchi, Giovanni Piscaglia

Featuring: Toni Servillo

Prd: Veronica Bottanelli, Marcella Ratti  

DOP: Marco Alfieri

Music: Dmitrii Miachin

Country: Italy

Year: 2020

Run Time: 88 mins

Hermitage: The Power of Art is available now.

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