Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Doctor is in

I've got two online courses and weddings, showers, parties and other such happy time-consuming things going on in my life. This is reducing the time in which I can sit on my couch and blog. I'll have to start mobile blogging during my lunch hours to get caught up.

Doctor Zhivago is one of those movies that I felt like if I didn't see it, I would be missing out on this huge cultural icon, like Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. These films are epics, they're truly larger than life. They can only be described with words like sweeping, lavish, classic, and grand. They are big in every sense of the word, and they are long. Doctor Zhivago has a 197 minute running time. However, I cut this down by doing something borderline sacrilegious: I skip the overture, intermission and entre act orchestrations. I know, I know, these movies are like operas and each character and theme has its own music and by skipping these things I miss out on the bigger picture. But, there are plenty of movies that achieve an operatic-like soundtrack without needing overtures and intermissions, Lord of the Rings (1) and Star Wars (4) come to mind as examples. So, if you can't quite carve out three and a half hours in which to watch Doctor Zhivago, skip the music bits. The story is strong enough to stand on its own.

Doctor Zhivago takes the story of the Russian communist revolution and uses the story of two star-crossed lovers to frame it. Yuri Zhivago, the titular rich young physician, and Lara, the working class girl. Fate brings them together and tears them apart time and again. In the meantime, they each live through the worst parts of the communist revolution. It is, at its heart, a story of how in a nation where people are forced to share everything, everyone loses everything they hold dear. It is incredibly romantic, but it's so much more than a romance movie.

The cinematography is what makes this movie a masterpiece. The emotion of each scene is told by the camera. My favorite example of this is the first opportunity Yuri sees to begin an affair with Lara. He is draped in shadow, his face obscured, while he makes his shameful proposition. Lara, surrounded by a halo of light, nobly refuses his invitation, even though she admits she admires him a great deal. The dialogue is subtle, and the acting is as well, so if it weren't for the use of light and camera angle the viewer might not notice the power of morality at play in the scene. There are also several scenes featuring the odious Viktor Komarovsky, and the tension is shown in the shadows and cramped spaces in which he always brings Lara.

The costumes are accurate as possible, and flatter the actors without upstaging them. The makeup is the real costuming achievement in this film. The characters are shown to age. They reflect their nation as Russia becomes a shell of its former self. Poverty, fear and the ravages of time are shown on their faces with makeup.

The real stars are the sets and location. Russia herself is the silent character, and by showing the same places over and over again, changed by the revolution, slowly becoming more desolate and sad. The colorful flowers and blue skies seen in the happier times of Zhivago's life are replaced by gray streets and white snow.

The acting is just unbelievable. Not for one moment do you see any of the actors as anything else but their characters. Omar Sharif gives one of the best performances ever seen. If I had to rate performances in a top five, this is number two. The only performance I've seen that can top it is Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. This isn't entirely surprising. After working together on Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif teamed up with director David Lean to bring us Doctor Zhivago. Sharif originally wanted to play Pasha, but Lean cast him in the lead after Peter O'Toole passed on the role. Best twist of fate ever. Sharif gives a performance that spans a man's entire life and does it with a style that you just don't see anymore.
Julie Christie also astounds in playing Lara. She gives us a character that, in spite of all the hard knocks in her life, remains true and loving. Never bitter, never breaking down. Tom Courtenay is remarkable as Pasha. Courtenay shows the character's progression from an optimistic young man hungry for justice to a hardened war criminal who rules with an iron fist in a chilling and familiar way. If good people can become monsters, this is how it must happen.

The music really is amazing. It captures the scale of the story while still giving a feel of the individuals making up that story. There's no other way to describe the soundtrack, it's epic. It's operatic. It's the strong current in the ocean of this movie.

Doctor Zhivago is one for your bucket list. I'm so glad it was on mine. I'll never forget it.
Here's a little taste:


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