A shimmery whispering yellow in the trees – it comes for me this time of year. Doctor Zhivago. In autumn, whenever I see a gust of wind outside my window, creating a lonesome, magical cascade of colorful leaves and an undeniable atmosphere in the trees, I think of one haunting line – “Nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” Dear, dear Doctor Zhivago. That might be true. Indeed, maybe nobody loves poetry like a Russian – or better yet like filmmakers Carlo Ponti and David Lean, creators of the breathtakingly poetic epic cinematic masterpiece called “Doctor Zhivago” from 1965. Wow. “Breathtakingly poetic epic cinematic masterpiece?” I have laid my praise on as thick as Russian “syrniki” (cottage cheese pastry pancakes). Delish.
It’s no secret that I love an old movie. And “Doctor Zhivago” is about the best there is. It’s an epic tale of the 1917 Russian Revolution – chock full of idealistic rebels (and rebellions); vast, snowy eastern European and Siberian landscapes; and lovers (sweet lovers) caught up in the torturous, seemingly never-ending chaos of it all. The story spans years and miles, traces conflicting loyalties and harsh vendettas. But what I love most about “Doctor Zhivago” is its atmosphere – the way it paradoxically “touches” you in an “intangible” way.
The movie has a wonderful chemistry – a breathful mood. This Russian atmosphere is a character unto itself – almost in the way that New York City is its own character in filmmaker Sidney Lumet’s gritty realistic masterpiece “Serpico” from 1973. These two movies, belonging to two sharply different genres, have filmmakers who are masterful in completely immersing their viewers in a very specific “time and place.” That coveted artistic “suspension of disbelief” is present in “Doctor Zhivago” in a big way.
I’m there, ladies and gents, trekking across the frozen, windy tundra, knee-deep in snow with precious Omar Sharif – Doctor Zhivago himself. The doc ditches his captors and sets off to find his precious family. The poor man hallucinates along the way. I’m also there, in the end, as I hear Doctor Zhivago's brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) hauntingly narrate his one final, precious glimpse of Doctor Zhivago's lovely mistress Lara (played beautifully by Julie Christie). She walks away from Yevgraf and pleasantly waves to him from the sidewalk. She's in front of a stark black wall and a menacing red-framed photo of Stalin. I won’t spoil the details of what Yevgraf says here, but I will say that this scene is quite possibly one of my “TOP 5 PROFOUND” movie moments. The first time I saw it, I sighed so deeply – way down in the darkest, smallest, oxygen-craving parts of my poor little chest. I exhaled in a manner that maybe I never had before. Doctor Zhivago. This movie does it to you.
“Doctor Zhivago” is poetry in motion. You find yourself crying for a person, then a country, then a whole generation. Finally, you're weeping over a fleeting yellow leaf on a tree. It made me love Russia despite its flaws. And it reminded me of history's important teachings – how a small, soft bud will sprout through the snow (without fail) even after enduring the harshest of winters. Beautiful, just beautiful, Doctor Zhivago.