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Doctor Zhivago (1965)


Doctor Zhivago

For some people, David Lean’s name is synonymous with over-direction, but in Doctor Zhivago, as in Lawrence of Arabia, Lean had a theme and canvas to match his epic style. Boris Pasternak’s novel was one of the best novels of the 20th century, and probably the best anti-communist novel ever written. The book is not a political novel so much as a romance — but the doomed romance of Zhivago and Lara is a damning comment on an ideology and regime that robbed its people of their private lives and passions.

In Lean’s hands, the book is transformed into a sprawling epic and a lot of the subtlety is removed — but despite all the lurid images and overdramatic camera work, the result is not as overwrought as one might have expected. After all, Russia is a big place, and communism is a big subject. Fortunately, the screenwriters of yesterday were not as heavy-handed as today’s, and often the dialogue is nearly as rich as the costumes and settings.

This movie was probably a model for the Merchant-Ivory genre, but you can’t blame it for that. The film can be faulted for its moments of sentimentality — but there is nothing sentimental about the ending, when Zhivago and Lara are long dead and their daughter is accidentally rediscovered, and her identity restored, at a Siberian power plant. In its own way, this movie is as powerful a political statement as anything in mainstream cinema.

The multi-disc DVD release is appropriately grand for a film of this stature, including commentary from Sharif, Steiger, and David Lean’s widow, nearly a dozen documentaries old and new, and a music-only track that lets you savor Maurice Jarre’s moving score (if controversial during its creation). Highly recommended for fans and casual moviegoers.

Read me a bedtime story, mommy!