Review: Dersu Uzala (1975)

dersu

Can man be one with nature or are we condemned to be at constant war?

Written By: Akira Kurosawa & Yuri Nagibin
Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

The idea of man and his relationship with nature has been explored many times in the movies. The idea of man’s relationship with each other as formed through nature isn’t seen as often, but every once in a while a movie will go down that path. Dersu Uzala is a movie that has decided to go down that path, using nature as the backdrop for a tale of friendship, loyalty and understanding across borders. For the most part this approach works, but the movie does take on an uneven feel towards the end.

When the movie is following Dersu and Captain Arseniev through the wilderness the movie is at its strongest. Man’s inability to understand each other is shown through the groups initial reactions to Dersu, while at the same time highlighting man’s inability to understand nature. The movie is at its best during the wilderness sections because Kurosawa lets his story flow and it feels large and intimate at the same time without losing its natural feel. The basic message is that man must accept his fellow man for what he is, the same is true of nature, or man will never get along with one another. The wilderness showcases this belief best in the tension filled scene of the Captain and Dersu cutting down grass for a reason we initially don’t comprehend in an attempt to beat the setting sun.

The heart, and ultimately the biggest misstep, of Dersu Uzala is in its attempts to show the true friendship that can come out of contrasting lives. Dersu is given time to develop and he becomes a fully realized character, but the problem lies in the fact that his friendship with the Captain comes across terribly one sided in the development department. The Captain is truly his friend and the movie does a great job of showing that he shares a deep bond with Dersu. But, Dersu Uzala fails to bring the same type of depth to the character of the Captain as it does to Dersu. Once they reach the city the Captain feels like an afterthought. The movie is retreading the same ideas that were already expressed in the wilderness, but in the realm of the Captain it fails to give the Captain any real character or moments where we learn a bit more about him, as we did with Dersu in his background. I wanted to know more about the Captain, why his friendship with Dersu was so important, what he did in the city, why in the end he agreed with Dersu’s decision to live, etc.. But, Dersu Uzala never went there, instead it kept the Captain as a very shallowly developed character.

Perhaps the reason I favored the wilderness so much was because of the amount of beautiful shots that were presented in that area of Dersu Uzala. One shot in particular was beautiful and striking while accentuating the wonder of their natural surroundings. A wide shot of the men trudging across the lake splashed by hues from the setting sun is brilliant and wonderful to take in. When in the wilderness Dersu Uzala was full of shots like that and moments that added to the visual beauty.

I liked Dersu Uzala, I merely wish that both lead characters had been given the same depth as Dersu. The movie is paced rather slowly, but for the most part the pacing was never a problem. It’s not among Kurosawa’s best, but it’s not a movie you want to avoid. Dersu Uzala is a good movie, but when searching out Kurosawa picks this is one that I would put on the back burner behind his much better work.

Rating:

***

Cheers,
Bill

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