1975 (1976 US), New World Pictures. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Maksim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin, Svetlana Danilchenko, Dmitri Korshikov.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Kids & Up*|
Content advisory: Animist-type modes of expression; some tense situations.
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Dersu Uzala (DVD)
By Steven D. Greydanus
Every advance in civilization or technology comes with a corresponding loss. As men form communities and take up specialized trades, they can no longer provide for all their own needs. As cultures become literate, they lose the discipline of oral tradition and extensive memorization. Where computerized driving directions and satellite navigation prevail, few will be able to read the night sky or navigate by the stars.
Vladimir Arseniev was an early 20th-century explorer who mapped much of the krai territory of the Russian Far East and studied its indigenous peoples. Based on his memoirs, Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala tells the story of an unusual friendship between Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) and the nomadic tribal hunter for whom the film is named (Maksim Munzuk).
Though Kurosawa has always been a student of world cinema, his work consists almost exclusively of Japanese-language films shot in Japan, so Dersu Uzala, shot in Siberia for Soviet film house Mosfilm, represents a departure in both senses of the word for the director.
The unspoiled vastness of the Siberian wilderness, so utterly unlike the modern Japanese landscape with its cultivated forests, offered a radically new canvas for Kurosawa. Always a powerful visual stylist, Kurosawa crafted some of his most striking imagery for Dersu Uzala, especially in a numinous, eerily lit confrontation with a tiger.
The director’s characteristically kinentic flair for action is here, but instead of erupting in violence it finds expression in a breathtaking sequence with Arseniev and Dersu frantically struggling for survival on a frozen marsh with the deadly cold of night coming on, and also in a gripping episode with Dersu accidentally set adrift on a raft in dangerous waters.
Kurosawa’s humanism is in full flower in Dersu Uzala. In the top half of the story, Dersu’s unsophisticated manner and outlook make him an object of fun from Arseniev’s men, but his endless resourcefulness and rough-hewn wisdom eventually win the civilized men’s respect.
To modern audiences, Dersu seems part Yoda, part Davy Crockett, with his blend of pre-Christian spirituality and shrewd woodcraft. To Arseniev, he embodies something civilized men have lost, something that can no longer survive in the world Arseniev is helping to build. Neither man can really understand the other — which is precisely what makes their friendship so special.