Based on Vladimir Arseniev’s memoir Dersu, okhotnik, Dersu Uzala is the story of two men, Arseniev, a Russian army captain in charge of expeditions surveying the Siberian wilderness, and Dersu, an elderly Goldi hunter whom he meets on one expedition, and then another five years later, and befriends. Dersu is associated with death and losses. At the outset in 1910, prior to the film’s series of flashbacks, Dersu is dead and Arseniev is trying to locate his unmarked grave—a mournful civilian version of Arseniev’s military job. Dersu, we learn, has lost wife and children to smallpox; itinerant, he calls the vast forest his home. Dersu’s conviction he has shot and killed a tiger precipitates his downfall; Kanga, the Spirit of the Forest, is now against him. His eyesight dims, robbing him of his ability to survive in the forest. Ironically, Dersu has meant life to Arseniev, who tells his young son in Khabarovsk, where the Captain has taken Dersu into his home, that Dersu saved his life several times.
One such occasion accounts for a splendid passage as, cut off from the other men in a blasting snowstorm, Dersu commands the younger, wearying commander to join him in a fierce effort to cut sufficient wild grass to create an impromptu faux-igloo for shelter before sundown seals their doom.
Dersu represents innocent, primitive humanity; Arseniev, civilized humanity. Both are good men; but until he nears blindness, Dersu sees some things more clearly. Early on, Arseniev bases the reality of Nature in human psychological projection; to him and his men, mountains can either be “inviting” or “sullen.” By contrast, Dersu experiences Nature on its own terms. Toward the end, Arseniev explains away the phantom tiger that shadows Dersu as “the projection of Dersu’s fear of the forest now that he could not see.” But we also have seen the tiger. Its reality is incontestable. We observe it right outside Arseniev’s tent; we, the camera and Arseniev are all inside the tent. The point is this: Arseniev also might have seen the tiger had civilization not separated him from his capacity to see this ghost or specter.
A Soviet film, Dersu Uzala was made by Japan’s Akira Kurosawa, who had attempted suicide following a number of traumatic events, including the financial and initial critical failure of one of his masterpieces, Dôdesukaden (1970), which signaled the collapse of his career. This new film in a foreign land won the Oscar, but it is a thin, ponderous spectacle that fails to help us understand how such a deep bond forms between Dersu and the Captain. Their association makes sense; their friendship does not. (Perhaps Arseniev exaggerated it in the memoir.) However, much of the imagery is so eerily beautiful that we believe we have entered an otherworldly domain. Kurosawa’s color cinematographers are Asakazu Nakai, Fyodor Dobronravov and Yuri Gantman.
Maksim Munzuk is excellent as Dersu except when Dersu tearfully hugs the Captain’s legs. This is a bit more than I can take.
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