#21. Dersu Uzala (1975)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Vladimir Arsenyev, Akira Kurosawa, Yuri Nagibin (based on Dersu Uzala novels by Vladimir Arsenyev)
Starring: Maxim Munzuk, Yury Solomin
Akira Kurosawa’s first and only film made entirely outside of Japan is a stunning and meditative work the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Dersu Uzala is the Academy Award-winning film about Captain Arseniev (Yury Solomin) and his transformative experience with a local aboriginal tribesman named Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk), who guides Arseniev and his troop through the harsh Russian frontier. Uzala wins the hearts and minds of Arseniev and his men through his continuous displays of toughness, instinct, and intelligence, which saves the men’s lives on multiple occasions. Arseniev and Uzala form a strong, lasting bond after the Captain’s life is saved by the mysterious aboriginal man during a sudden blizzard. When we flash forward several years, Arseniev is once again traversing the Russian forests and mountain ranges where he encountered Uzala in years previous, and hopes to once again run into his old friend. Dersu Uzala is a deeply moving and beautiful film based on the true story of the titular Nanai trapper. While it’s certainly not like many of Akira Kurosawa’s previous films, the masterful director is able to put his own spin on the classic man vs. wilderness tale, telling an endearing story of camaraderie in the process. The cinematography featured in Dersu Uzala is breathtaking, featuring beautiful visuals of mountain ranges, snow-covered forests, and quaint villages. While the story of Dersu Uzala is an epic one, the visuals and direction by Akira Kurosawa make the film feel like a smaller, more intimate character study that happens to feature an adventure of epic proportions. The story of Uzala and Captain Arseniev is the highlight of the film – watching their chemistry blossom over the 144 minute runtime feels truly special and memorable. Maxim Munzuk’s portrayal of the wise, but rather odd, Uzala is the highlight of the film, and his chemistry with Yury Solomin’s more restrained Captain makes for an interesting and endearing dynamic. Kurosawa’s exploration of themes of lifestyles of old and the effect that man has had on nature of all sorts of deeply moving and still manages to feel relevant – these are themes we have been struggling with as a society for decades now. Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala is a beautiful and heartwarming story from start to finish. It may not match the epic scale of films like Kagemusha, Ran, or Seven Samurai, but it eclipses those movies in sheet heart and soul. Dersu Uzala is Kurosawa’s unsung masterpiece, and should be seen by anybody interested in international cinema.