Cinema: To Russia with Love

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Doctor Zhivago. Behind the opaque, frosted window pane of a room in Moscow, a candle's flame slowly melts a circle through which the camera peers at a young man reading a letter. As he absorbs terrible revelations about the girl he loves, the circle becomes a poetic, crystaline metaphor for his swollen anguish and the inevitable burning away of youth's illusions. Such fully visualized moments are the key to Director David Lean's triumph over the challenge of filming Boris Pasternak's monumental bestseller. With monastic zeal (TIME, Dec. 24), he has translated the book into a movie that is literate, oldfashioned, soul-filling and thoroughly romantic.

In Pasternak's novel, the love story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and his Lara (Julie Christie) was part of a vast canvas of war, revolution and social upheaval. Scenarist Robert Bolt has condensed much of this story through a narrator, Yuri's Bolshevik brother (Alec Guinness). The device seems awkward at times, but the flashbacks spring vividly to life on their own. The couple's first wordless encounter takes place aboard a tramcar in Moscow, and the headlong rush of their interwoven destinies is a subtle, unifying symbol of Zhivago. Trains wail along outside the house where Lara and her mother's self-seeking lover (Rod Steiger) generate the first sparks of scandal. After the revolution, a train carries Yuri, his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) and his family away to the relative safety of the Urals; and Lean bears down on every detail of their flight across an endless white snowscape in which ordinary human values seem suddenly locked in deep freeze.

Summarized, Zhivago's plot sounds like any conventional saga of Red Star-crossed lovers who meet, part, and meet again at all the crossroads of history. But if this be soap opera—and in some measure it is—the suds are set into motion by an impressive cast. As the poet-physician Zhivago, Sharif embodies both wounded sensibility and the simple, stubborn faith that a man need not sell heart and soul to prove his love of country. Julie Christie, frankly passionate and vulnerable as Lara, proves again that she is a vital presence on the screen. Steiger, who makes his beauty-and-the-beast role a seething study of precariously balanced lusts, Ralph Richardson, Siobhan McKenna, Tom Courtenay and Rita Tushingham, all meet the film's exacting standard. In a vivacious debut, Actress Chaplin indicates that a striking resemblance to her father may be somewhat more than skin-deep.

The star of Doctor Zhivago is Director Lean himself, who has effectively captured on film the essence of Pasternak's belief that men are priceless as individuals, not as cogs in a superstate. Lean speaks for humanity in a language of unspeakably beautiful images: the desolate ritual of a funeral on a windswept Russian heath; a band of running, white-shirted schoolboys suddenly massacred in a field of golden wheat; or simply the timeless, kaleidoscopic, never-ceasing cycle of the seasons. His sentimental Zhivago is perhaps warm and rewarding entertainment rather than great art; yet it reaches that level of taste, perception and emotional fullness where a movie becomes a motion-picture event.