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DERSU UZALA (director/writer: Akira Kurosawa; screenwriter: from the memoirs by Vladimir Arsenyev/Yuri Nagibin; cinematographers: Fyodor Dobronravov/ Yuri Gantman/Asakazu Nakai; editor: Akira Kurosawa; music: Isaak Shvarts; cast: Yuri Solomin (Vladimir Arsenyev), Maksim Munzuk (Dersu Uzala); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Yoichi Matsue/Nikolai Sizov; Kino Video; 1975-Soviet Union/Japan-in Russian with English subtitles)
“It’s sweetly told and heartwarming, much like a Disney film, but not demanding much of the viewer.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Akira Kurosawa (“Rashomon”/”Drunken Angel”) hadn’t made a film in over two years and a few months after his failed suicide attempt over his undiagnosed medical illness and declining film career, he journeyed to Russia to do a film for Mosfilm in Russian. It was drawn from the memoirs of Vladimir Arsenyev, a military explorer at the turn of the century in the wilds of eastern Siberia. It tells of Captain Arsenyev (Yuri Solomin) and his team of four other soldiers and their association with noble savage Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk, a Soviet Asian), an elderly widowed Goldi hunter who is taken on as their guide. He proves to be invaluable in saving their neck from a storm in Lake Khanka by showing them how to build a shelter and throughout imparts his homespun country wisdom on survival. Dersa is an excellent tracker and chastises the Russians for their senseless slaughter of animals, as he hunts only for food. As expected, a sincere friendship develops between the civilized city-dwellers and the primitive natural Oriental man as they go on three arduous survey missions. It’s sweetly told and heartwarming, much like a Disney film, but not demanding much of the viewer. Though it has some beautiful scenic moments of the unexplored forests and Taiga land, it’s more in the line of a crude and lumbering state-sponsored Russian heroic film of that period than one of the more imaginative works the Japanese filmmaker has become known for.

It won the 1976 Best Foreign Film Oscar and helped Kurosawa revive his dying career, but does not rank with his better films. The film took four years to make, and benefited greatly from being shot on location, and the great natural performance by Maksim Munzuk. Kurosawa meant it as an allegory for how civilization has lost its respect of nature, and contemplates what mankind has lost by no longer understanding how to live in nature without destroying the planet. If it wasn’t so dull and plodding, I might have been more enthused.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”