The revered Japanese director Akira Kurosawa only made one feature film in a language other than his native tongue, and it was this poetic character study about the impact a soulful primitive has on a man from the civilized world. Painted on a broad canvas comprising myriad widescreen vistas of the natural world and unspooling at epic length (144 minutes), Dersu Uzala takes place mostly in the wilderness of Russia’s section of the Far East. Spoken entirely in Russian, the movie begins in 1910, when government surveyor Arsenev (Yurly Solomin) travels to Siberia upon hearing that his old friend, frontier guide Dersu (Maksim Munzuk), has died. Revisiting the place where they met, Arsenev remembers his long acquaintance with Dersu, triggering the lengthy flashbacks that provide most of the picture’s running time.
The movie’s central relationship begins in 1902, when Arsenev first travels to Siberia, tasked with mapping the area for the Russian government. Aresnev eventually stumbles across Dersu, a Nanai mountain man who travels alone because he lost his family during an outbreak of smallpox. Expert at survival and reverential toward the natural world, Dersu escorts Arsenev’s survey team through remote terrain and quickly evolves from an object of ridicule (Arsenev’s people initially mock Dersu’s superstitious beliefs) to a valued colleague. In the film’s most riveting scene, Aresenev and Dersu find themselves lost and alone on a frozen field just before nightfall, so Dersu leads his friend in a desperate endeavor to gather stalks of tall grass with which to build a makeshift shelter, thereby saving both of them from certain death overnight. Although Kurosawa’a visual style throughout much of Dersu Uzala is frustratingly static, with lugubriously long takes of people talking, the great artist’s consummate skill emerges when he uses quick-cut angles of two men fighting for their lives amid the golden hues of twilight.
Based upon a nonfiction book by the real-life Vladimir Arsenev, Dersu Uzala gains potency in its second half, when Arsenev returns to Siberia for a subsequent mission and discovers that Dersu’s failing eyesight has eliminated his value as a guide and endangered his ability to survive in his beloved wilderness. This plot development motivates another standout sequence, during which Dersu reacts with terror after he shoots at but misses a tiger that’s bedeviling Arsenev’s men; in Dersu’s superstitious mind, the spirit of the tiger will hunt him down because Dersu has failed to fulfill his role in the natural order of things. Arsenev nobly brings his friend home to the city, but Dersu is too much a creature of the frontier to blend into the modern world. During the passages depicting Dersu’s decline, Kurosawa laces the film with lyrical narration about loss that sums up not only the key themes of Dersu Uzala, but also metaphysical tropes that ran through myriad Kurosawa masterpieces, from Ikiru (1952) to Ran (1985).
Although Dersu Uzala won considerable acclaim, including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it might be a stretch to call the picture one of the essential works in Kurosawa’s towering filmography. It’s a soulful film, but also an unwieldy one that would have benefited from judicious editing. Nonetheless, it represented a creative rebirth after a dark time in the filmmaker’s life (Kurosawa attempted suicide in the early ’70s), and he would soon return to the samurai milieu of his ’50s and ’60s classics with the poetic Kagemusha (1980).
Dersu Uzala: GROOVY