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Saturday, May 1, 2010

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO -- DVD review by porfle

This is one of those timeless classics that I've somehow managed to miss seeing up until now. It's nice to still have films such as DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) to experience for the first time at various points in my life, with different perspectives. Who knows how I would've reacted to it at age fifteen? Twenty? Thirty? (Okay, you get the picture.) I didn't even like CASABLANCA or THE MALTESE FALCON until a few years ago. But seeing this particular movie at my present age and frame of mind left me with decidedly mixed feelings which, aside from the positive, include both disappointment and apathy.

Master director David Lean (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) and crew went to Spain and built an incredible recreation of downtown Moscow that dominates much of the early part of the film, which is based on Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Boris Pasternak's semi-autobiographical novel. Here, we meet Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a young doctor and poet who, after being orphaned as a child, was raised by his mother's wealthy friends Anna and Alexander (Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson).

He falls in love with their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, looking amazingly like her father, Charlie) and plans to marry her, but becomes fascinated with a beautiful woman named Lara (Julie Christie) whom he observes from time to time. The naive Lara is drawn into a relationship with her mother's lover, an opportunistic bon vivant named Komarovsky (Rod Steiger, giving the film's best performance), who becomes obsessed with her. After he rapes her in a fit of frustrated passion, the distraught Lara tries to kill him at a party attended by Yuri.


Meanwhile, civil unrest comes to a boil in Russia with Lara's fiance, Pasha (Tom Courtenay) becoming a staunch revolutionary against the decadent ruling class. When he goes MIA during World War I (he'll turn up very unexpectedly later on), Lara becomes a nurse and encounters Yuri in the field as they tend the wounded, where they fall in love. Yuri returns home to find his family displaced by the new order and himself under suspicion as a free-thinking artist. They flee to the country and, after an arduous train journey in a packed freight car, move into the ruins of their old estate, where Yuri discovers Lara living in a nearby town. As the conflicted Yuri moves between his two loves, Lara and Tonya, the horrors of war catch up to them yet again and threaten their very lives until a surprise figure from their past becomes their last hope for survival.


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO has all the grandeur of an epic, yet director Lean keeps pulling it back to a personal level. Characters are often dominated by vast landscapes of ice and snow, or huge crowds of swarming extras, to emphasize their relative insignificance amidst the turmoil around them, yet this is never more than a backdrop for the human story. The oppressiveness of the new regime with its constant (and well-founded) paranoia and danger of being deemed an enemy of the state is well-conveyed by Yuri's clashes with political zealots who find his peaceful poetic soul subversive. We observe through him the terror and inhumanity that have taken over his beloved country as, first by choice and later by force, he must render medical aid in the midst of horrible violence while remaining a suspect. This isn't a history of the Russian revolution but the story of how Zhivago reacts to it and how it effects him and those around him.

Lean's visual storytelling is impeccable. Whether depicting the first bloody demonstrations in the streets of Moscow or Yuri's childlike wonder at a window glittering with prisms of frost, the film is a dazzling series of memorable impressions. Old-style use of symbolism is in evidence at every turn--a trolley car crackles with electricity as Yuri and Lara touch for the first time, a vase of sunflowers sheds its petals as though weeping at their first parting, a colorful balalaika left to Yuri by his mother reappears throughout as a reminder of the happiness and joy that are being repressed by the new government.


Lean's brilliant use of sound and image to tell the story is never more impressive than when Lara and Pasha are seen quarreling through a window, their words drowned out by church bells as a candle slowly melts away the frost on the panes, or when Komarovsky discovers that Lara's mother has attempted suicide and races frantically through the house as the camera follows his progress from window to window. The opening sequence with Yuri as a child attending his mother's funeral is a wonderfully bleak, moody, almost gothic nightmare of emotional devastation. A pre-dawn shift change at a Russian power plant looks like something out of METROPOLIS. And few images are as powerful as that of a mother running desperately alongside the train carrying Yuri and his family as it speeds past a burned-out village, trying to escape while unaware that the child she's carrying is already dead. Throughout the film, we learn much more of the story by watching than by listening to the dialogue, as good as it is.

With all of this going for it, the main gist of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is its romantic entanglements, and that's where it pretty much left me cold. Yuri and Lara's love story hits all the right notes and is very pretty, and there's a real warmth between them that illuminates their dreary surroundings, but no real fire. Yuri himself often seems as blank as the paper on which he writes his fanciful poems, with little or none of the inner conflict or guilt one would expect from a man who leaves his devoted, pregnant wife and their son to jump into bed with his mistress as though he were stepping out to walk the dog. He's like a drug addict jonesing for his next Lara fix no matter who gets hurt, and--screw romance--I just couldn't respect him for that.


After awhile, it began to seem less like a tragic love story and more like the story of an irresponsible flake who just can't make up his mind. Maurice Jarre's celebrated love theme doesn't help, popping up way too often and sounding (to me, anyway) tinny and cloying. A bookend sequence involving Yuri's half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), a high-ranking policeman searching for Yuri and Lara's illegitimate daughter, adds a nice though slightly saccharine final touch, but on the whole I found the film emotionally uninvolving.

The 2-disc 45th anniversary edition from Warner Brothers is in widescreen with English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Spanish Surround stereo. Captions are in English, French, and Spanish. The movie is contained on disc one, which, unfortunately, is a flipper--hard to keep those pesky fingerprints off no matter how hard you try--along with a two-part documentary featuring comments from several well-known directors and film historians. A commentary track by Omar Sharif, Sandra Lean, and Rod Steiger is pleasant, though filled with long stretches of silence. Disc two is replete with featurettes, press interviews, a general release theatrical trailer, Geraldine Chaplin's screen test, various promotional shorts from 1965, and an hour-long documentary entitled "Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic."

Regardless of whatever reservations I may have had toward this film--and I'm sure its legions of fans would think me a dog-kicking cad for having them--I still found DOCTOR ZHIVAGO to be a marvelously compelling and pictorially splendid experience. I can't wait to seek out more of David Lean's films and watch further examples of a master filmmaker at work. But as far as Dr. Yuri Zhivago goes, I have only one thing to say: stop acting like a lovesick puppy and man up, dude! Your family needs you!


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