Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Doctor Zhivago (1965) *****

What can possibly be said about “Doctor Zhivago” that hasn't been said already? The film is an absolute classic, one of the best ever. I suppose the first thing that must be said is that if you haven't seen it, you must watch it soon. Then you need to be on the lookout for an opportunity to see it on the big screen. I was able to re-watch it this way recently, and it really does take a big screen to do justice to the sweeping cinematography.

“Doctor Zhivago” explores the plight of a handful of characters caught up in the throes of the Russian Revolution. Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is a promising, young physician in Moscow. He is apolitical, but like many Russians he feels sympathy for the demonstrating Bolsheviks, who seem to be brutally suppressed by the Czar's soldiers. Yuri marries his childhood friend and adopted sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and is poised to have a quiet, rewarding life. Meanwhile, the 17-year-old Lara (Julie Christie) is seduced and abused by the wealthy, influential Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). The sullied girl runs off and marries Pasha (Tom Courtenay,) a serious, young Communist.

WWI enters all their lives and sets the stage for the Russian Revolution. With the nation convulsing, Yuri and Lara are torn from their families and thrust together to serve in a field hospital. They fall in love, but when the fighting settles down, both attempt to return to their previous lives. As the country goes through spasm after spasm of civil war, however, they are constantly uprooted, and their destinies proven to be interwoven.

For a movie that is over three hours long, “Dr. Zhivago” goes by surprisingly quickly. Every scene is so beautifully wrought and rings so true. The film is largely celebrated for it's astounding winter landscapes, which are rendered so well on the big screen. I find the story, characters, and acting equally good, however. I was particularly impressed with the clear-eyed way the story depicts the Revolution. First the brutality of the Czar is shown, along with the wastefulness of WWI. Then, after the Communists have taken over, the politics get uglier and uglier. One Party member, when it is pointed out what a good man Yuri Zhivago is, says “God rot all good men.” Under the Revolution, all men are to be equal, with no room for one man who is more compassionate or dedicated than others. Tonya's family home in Moscow is taken over by the Party, turned into a communal living facility. The other families who move in resent the owners as former Bourgeoisie, and relish any opportunity to lay them low. Yuri's poetry, which is completely apolitical, is nonetheless banned by the Party for being personal and Bourgeois. As Pasha puts it, “The personal life is dead in Russia.” Yuri and his family, and Lara as well, scuffle back and forth across Russia, looking vainly for a place where they can simply live and be left alone. As they do, we are treated to expansive views of a bitter winter landscape that serves as a metaphor for the winter of the human soul.

5 stars out of 5

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