Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dersu Uzala, the Hunter

Earlier this week, I wrote a review of Catch-22, a book I returned to some forty years after I first read and loved it, only to find my love had waned over time.

This weekend, I watched Dersu Uzala, the Hunter for the first time since the 1970s. It was shot in the Soviet Union and directed by Akira Kurosawa, the only film he ever shot in 70 mm. It tells the story of the friendship of a Siberian native named Dersu Uzala and a Russian captain of a surveying party in the early part of the 20th Century, portrayed by Maksim Munzuk and Yuri Solomin respectively, the two men seated in this black and white still from the picture. The vast majority of the film is in color, but there is a scene comprised of photos of the main characters, this being one of the photos.

The movie is based on the memoir of the captain, Vladimir Arseniev. The film is long and slow and very beautiful. I don't know if modern audiences would feel antsy watching it or not, but because it is a story of man against the elements, the slow pace and long shots make perfect sense. One of the joys of seeing a foreign film from an era I'm unfamiliar with is to see great actors completely inhabiting parts. My constantly cataloging brain isn't thinking "Oh, yeah, I saw Maksim Munzuk in ..." I never saw him play anything but Dersu Uzala. In my mind, he is Dersu Uzala.

One of the surprises for me is the incredible beauty of Siberia. In the general imagination, Siberia might as well be Antarctica, but in the Russian view it is the great untamed wilderness, the way Americans felt about The West in the 19th Century.  There are plenty of scenes in the cold, snow and ice, but we also see it in the spring, summer and autumn. The movie contains some of the best nature photography ever.

Some might complain that Dersu is too much the over-simplified "noble savage". To those people, let me say... bite me. If you don't love him as much as the captain did, I don't know what movie you were watching.

I saw it on DVD. The quality of some parts was a little scratchy. I hope someone somewhere is working to re-master this and put it on Blu-Ray, because it is one of the most beautiful films of all time.


Michael Strickland said...

George Lucas was a fan of Kurosawa, and he rented out the Northpoint Theatre in the Fisherman's Wharf area during some unsuccessful run of a stinko Hollywood film. The theater had a 70mm widescreen setup and great sound, and "Dersu Uzalu" showed there for a week or so.

It was effing amazing, and I don't even need to see it again because chances are we'll never see it so perfectly projected again in our lifetimes. Some of the old 4:3 aspect ratio movie palaces like the Castro and the Paramount are being saved, but the great, big, widescreen cinemas like the Coronet and the Alexandria, built between the 1950s and the 1970s in the Bay Area, have just about disappeared.

namastenancy said...

I must have seen it at the same time. To see it on the wide screen was to be pulled completely into that world. It's one of those films that I never want to see again because that one time was so perfect.