Emerging from deep inside a noisy restaurant last night, where we'd had dinner with friends, my husband and I skirted a huge curbside puddle and realized we must have missed a big rain. Turns out a fierce thunderstorm dumped inches of rain on the city and nearly killed a man in Brooklyn (he was struck by lightning). So I was primed to appreciate Dersu's quiet critique of the artificiality of city life ("How can men sit in box?") when I got home and popped in the DVD of Dersu Uzala that I'd started watching the day before.
I first saw this movie years ago, in a class on Slavic film that I took as an undergrad. I remembered star Maksim Munzuk's kind, weathered face and the feral beauty of his homeland, a stretch of forest in Russia's far east. I also remembered liking it, but I'd forgotten more than I remembered about this late-life Akira Kurosawa character study. I guess I just wasn't ready to appreciate it then, since it's hard to imagine forgetting it now.
Kurosawa was 65 when he made Dersu Uzala, the same age as Munzuk. Though it won a foreign-language Oscar, the director was on the downside of his long career, having experienced commercial failure, made an unsuccessful attempt at directing a Hollywood film, and tried to kill himself. Maybe he identified with Dersu, an aging nomadic hunter whose way of life is fading as fast as his eyesight. In any case, his empathy for the man is evident, as is his respect for his decency and wisdom. In the forest where he has spent his entire life, Dersu is the ultimate natural man, understanding everything and everyone.
He and the Russian Army captain who takes him on as a guide and becomes his friend are the only characters who matter in the movie (the callow kids in the captain's company are just an undifferentiated Greek chorus, scoffing at Dersu until they learn to respect him). But this is really the captain's story (the movie is based on a memoir by a Russian explorer), so Dersu is always filtered through his gaze, which struck me as a little patronizing. I didn't doubt the love the two had for each other, but it felt more like a father-son relationship than one of equals, the much-younger captain playing the reassuring father to Dersu, whose emotions and beliefs are portrayed as childishly simple. Dersu's bandy-legged walk even makes him look like an oversized toddler at times, and his pidgin Russian, which the subtitles translate into what Jean-Luc Godard calls "Navajo English," makes him sound like one too. He's also puzzlingly dependent on the captain when his vision gets so bad he no longer feels safe in his forest: I know his wife and children were killed years ago, but what about the rest of his family and friends? Was his whole community wiped out?
But if the captain's understanding of Dersu felt a little limited, I was still totally immersed in the film's vision of the forest and wind-shipped plains where he lived. Shot in 2:20:1 widescreen by Asakazu Nakai, the cinematographer for many of Kurosawa's greatest works (including Ikiru, Ran, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai), Dersu Uzala made even a diehard box-dweller like me thrill to the primal pleasures and perils of this beautiful but unforgiving landscape. In one of their expeditions, Dersu and the captain get separated from the others and lose their way on a grass-covered stretch of icy land. In a race with the setting sun, they cut the long grass as fast as they can, trying to get enough to shelter themselves from the murderously cold night while a ferocious wind threatens to rip the precious stems from their hands. There's more genuine peril and suspense in this one scene than in all of Inception put together.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.