"Dersu Uzala" may be endured in a mood of respectful regret by movie freaks who consider it essential to see every work by a greater director. Akira Kurosawa is unquestionably one of the greatest, but this pastoral epic about the inherent superiority of a man who lives alone and in harmony with nature reflects a decline in dramatic power and a doting, futile taste in sentimental hero-worship. It's a contemplative work by an aging artist whose thought processes seem to be slowing down as his thoughts resolve themselves into grandfatherly platitudes.
Although it may not seem that way to patrons who wander into the West End Circle unawares, "Dersu Uzala" could be a more drastic example of a filmmaker slipping into his dotage. It could be "Dodes Ka'den," a valentine to the mostly demented inhabitants of a shantytown, that Kurosawa made in the early '70s. Compared to that fond misconception, Kurosawa's regard for Siberian hunter and woodsman Dersu Uzala seems perfectly explicable.
The movie probably served a vital purpose by restoring Kurosawa to artistic activity after a period of frustration and despondency that led him to attempt suicide. "Dersu Uzala" is certainly ponderous and plodding. Kurosawa's reverential perception of the simple, self-sufficient Man of Nature and the abundance of static takes with pregnant pauses leave the movie wide open for ridicule, especially from impatient, urban, wisecracking moviegoers. Nevertheless, "Dersu Uzala" is serenely, picturesquely [TEXT OMMITTED FROM SOURCES]
As time goes by, it becomes obvious that Kurosawa has lost interest in the dotty. It comes as a relief after "Dodes Ka'den," which appeared to foreshadow a mental breakdown.
A Soviet-Japanese co-production, "Dersu Uzala" was based on the reminiscences of a turn-of-the-century Russian explorer and topographer, Arseniev, who wrote several travel books inspired by his map-making expeditions into the wilds of Western Siberia. Arseniev, portrayed by Yuri Solomin, first encounters the wily, knowledgeable Dersu, played by Maxim Munzuk, in 1902. They are reunited on a subsequent expedition in 1907, when Arseniev discovers that Dersu's sight is failing and offers to put him up at his home in the city, a kindly but ultimately misguided gesture.
The landscapes are impressive, frequently bathed in warm, atumnal sunlight or deeply shadowed and silhoutted by shooting in twilight or at sunset. Certain compositions achieve a picturesque serenity that is truly masterful and irresistible. For example, there's a kind of child's storybook beauty about an interlude in which Kurosawa shows the setting sun at the right, the rising moon at the left and Solomin, Munzuk and a sextant silhoueted in the center as Dersu imparts a bit of folk wisdom about the importance of the sun.
Dersu's early displays of woodsy expertise are also beguiling, in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes' superior powers of observation. Not that Arseniev's party, dominated by callow youngsters given to amateurish takes and absurdly hearty laughter, represents much in the way of competition. As time goes by, you begin to susepct that Dersu could be the least competent woodsman in all Siberia and no one in Arseniev's group would know the difference. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCES] dramatic aspects of his subject matter. A fascinating perilous situation in which Dersu and Arseniev must fashion a shelter to survive the night on a vast ice floe terminates in anticlimax when Arseniev passes out and revives the next morning to discover how Dersu completed the job. Later, Kurosawa builds up to an encounter with bandits that dribbles away when a group of villagers turn up to assure the heroes that their assistance won't be necessary.
This is not the witty, vigorous Kurosawa of "Rashomon," "Seven Samurai," "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro." However, there were always two Kurosawas: the peerless action direction of the samurai stories and the earnest, socially conscious, broken-hearted moralist of modern stories like "Ikiru." The moralist remains and compostions reflect some of the grandeur of Kurosawa at his best. But it's now a weary, static grandeur, a reminder of a once overwhelming film-making sensibility but not a renewal.