National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Natural Wisdom vs. Spiritual Deficiency

BY John Prizer

May 31-June 6, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/31/98 at 1:00 AM


Oscar-winning film showcases indigenous life of ethnic Mongolian

In this age of environmental concerns, Western artists and intellectuals often over-praise the wisdom of indigenous peoples in dealing with nature. Celebrating more primitive lifestyles is a backhanded way of flailing the cultures of industrially developed nations for excessive pollution and other ecological sins. Agood example is Kevin Costner's 1990 Oscar-winning hit, Dances with Wolves, which finds almost everything about Native American traditions to be good and depicts the white man's ways as destructive to the environment.

Dersu Uzala, a Russian co-production directed by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai and Rashomon), dramatizes these same issues with intelligence and passion, finding a proper balance between the natural wisdom of indigenous folk and their spiritual shortcomings.

The year is 1902, and famous explorer Capt. Vladimir Arsenyev (Yuri Solomin) is leading a topographical expedition into Russia's Ussurti region near the Chinese border, which is inhabited exclusively by tribes of Mongolian ethnicity. He hires as his guide a hunter from the Goldi tribe, Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk), who after the death of his wife and children, has lived on his own off the land.

Dersu can make out human and animal tracks in places where the Russians see only chaotic wilderness. He is also a better shot than any of the soldiers accompanying the expedition, but, unlike them, he refuses to hunt for sport.

“It's bad to kill animals for nothing,” he declares with a logic that would please present-day animal rights activists.

The Goldi tribesman also has an innate sense of giving back to both people and nature what he has taken from them. After the explorer's party has rested for several days in an abandoned cabin, he insists that they leave supplies of matches, rice, and salt for whoever might use the place later. Arsenyev realizes few Russians, who consider themselves more civilized than the Goldi, would show this kind of charitable concern for the needs of strangers whom they will never see.

Winter comes, and the explorer's last assignment is to survey a frozen lake. He and the tribesman set out alone. Dersu has a bad feeling about the place, but Arsenyev insists they keep going. The tribesman's intuition, of course, is right. A sudden windstorm blows away their tracks, and they are unable to return to base camp. They are lost in a treacherous area of frozen swamps and thin ice. The temperature is falling fast, and they will freeze to death by early evening if they don't find shelter.

Arsenyev collapses from fatigue. Dersu saves his life by dragging him into a hut he has hastily constructed from reeds. When the explorer tries to show his gratitude the next day, the tribesman humbly replies, “No thanks needed; we work together.”

Five years pass, and Arsenyev is leading another expedition in the Ussurti area. He hooks up again with Dersu, but the tribesman has changed. His eyesight is failing, and he is no longer the best shot in the party.

Dersu has also become increasingly obsessed with the superstitions of his tribe's animist religion. After killing a tiger that has been stalking the party, he is convinced that Kanga, the forest spirit, wants him dead as revenge. He becomes irritable and fearful and withdraws into himself.

At the conclusion of the expedition, Arsenyev realizes that Dersu is so spooked by the tiger's death that he will be unable to survive on his own in the forest. The tribesman reluctantly accepts the explorer's invitation to live with his family in the city.

“How can you live in boxes,” Dersu asks after trying to survive inside Arsenyev's house. He is unable to adapt to city ways and returns to the wilderness, still afraid of the forest spirit.

Dersu Uzala, which won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1975, evinces a world of untouched nature that is as dangerous as it is beautiful. The indigenous tribesman is shown to have a respect for the environment from which more urbanized people can learn. However, the movie also depicts, with equal vividness, the obstacles to a safe, sane way of life created by animist spirituality.

Next week: Louis Malle'sAu Revoir, Les Enfants.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.