Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Doctor Zhivago

In 1958, Boris Pasternak was forced to renounce his Nobel Prize for Literature, when the Soviets made it clear he would not be allowed back in to the country if he traveled to Stockholm to accept. However, seven years later, they were only too happy to allow Central Committee member Mikhail Sholokhov to receive the honor they had denied Pasternak. Yet today, hardly anyone reads And Quiet Flows the Don aside from a handful of Russian majors, but Doctor Zhivago remains widely read throughout the world.

Of course a considerable measure of that enduring popularity stems from David Lean’s truly classic cinematic adaptation of Pasternak’s novel. Considered the last great MGM epic, Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (trailer here) will screen Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival in a newly restored high-definition print, in advance of the release of its 45th Anniversary Blue-Ray edition next week.

Zhivago is a poet, a healer, and a lover. He is not a fighter or an ideologue. Unfortunately, that puts him at odds with the tenor of his time and place—Revolutionary Russia. Initially, Zhivago is sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. Unfortunately, when he returns from World War I, he quickly discovers the difference between Bolshevik rhetoric and reality.

The biographical parallels between Pasternak and his Nobel Prize winning character have been often noted. Both were poets whose work ran afoul of Communist ideology, yet they loved Mother Russia too much to leave her, even when offered the opportunity. They also loved two women simultaneously, their faithful wives, and in Zhivago’s case, Lara, the women who inspired the character’s most famous poem and composer Maurice Jarre’s lushly romantic theme.

It is hard to imagine a film like Zhivago coming out of Hollywood today. While it is truly a sweeping wide-screen epic, it is character-driven. Certainly, it would be impossible to assemble a comparable cast of legitimate movie stars who offered intriguing screen presences as well as their marquee names. Omar Sharif conveys the soul of a poet as Zhivago, while Julie Christie is quite haunting as the beautiful and fragile Lara. Yet, perhaps the greatest performance comes from Sir Alec Guinness in the trickiest part, Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf, a hard but strangely sympathetic Bolshevik enforcer. Throw in Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Sir Ralph Richardson, Geraldine Chaplin, Rita Tushingham, and Klaus Kinski in a bit part, and you have a cast for the ages.

Though justly renowned for its spectacle, Zhivago is also the work of a genuine auteur. Lean’s perspectives and transitions have a visual excitement that still seems surprisingly bold. While Robert Bolt’s script avoids wallowing in the terrors of Revolutionary Russia, he never whitewashes the constant purges and executions. Indeed, it is a fitting reflection of its author and protagonist, rebels by virtue of being apolitical in a time of ideological madness.

Zhivago is a great film, worth seeing at any time, under any circumstances. Without screening the new high def print, one can only assume it was well done, because messing up this film would be one big, conspicuous scandal. It screens tomorrow (4/28) as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.