Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Doctor Zhivago (1965)


     When I was preparing to write this week, it was really hard for me to figure out what to say. What can I say? I mean, our world has been through some major events the last couple months. In March, a huge earthquake hit Japan and the surrounding area and destroyed thousands of lives. In April, tornadoes hit the United States and destroyed property and lives in three states. And even in the last couple days, with the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re still reminded of the tension in the Middle East that’s been going on for years. And I’m feeling called to address all this today. But I needed God to give me the right words—on my own, there’s no way that I could respond to all of this.

     But this weekend, God showed me what kind of a message I wanted to share with you. This semester, I’m taking a history class (excuse me, Western Civilization class), and we just got done discussing the Russian Revolution, prompting me to watch a movie I hadn’t seen in a very long time, “Doctor Zhivago”. If you’ve seen it, you know—it’s epic. “Doctor Zhivago” is a three-and-a-half-hour-long epic film set during the Russian Revolution, made by the same filmmakers that created “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” (two films that hopefully I will be able to share with you soon). But while “Kwai” is set in a Japanese jungle during World War Two, and “Lawrence” is set in a huge Arabian desert during World War One, “Zhivago” is set in a vast, snowy landscape, and it is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. But at times, it’s also very painful to watch.

     Omar Sharif, who also starred in “Lawrence of Arabia”, plays Yuri A. Zhivago (I abbreviate his middle name because I don’t remember how to spell it and I don’t want to look it up), a young graduate student studying to be a doctor who writes poetry as a hobby. His mother died when he was a child, and so he was raised by his aunt and uncle, whose daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie) he eventually marries (which, I suppose, wasn’t objectionable back then and there). But soon, Yuri is separated from them as he serves in the Revolution, doing medical work wherever needed. While he is there, he works with a volunteer named Lara (Julie Christie). Lara has had an interesting history: at seventeen years old, she was seduced by a much older man, Victor Komarosky (Rod Steiger). It not only destroys her innocence, but it also almost ruins the engagement she already has with Pasha (Tom Courtenay), a man fighting against the government during the Revolution. And one night, at a local Christmas Eve party, Lara shoots Victor (who, fearing arrest, commands those around him not to get the police), and Pasha takes Lara away. Yuri was at this party—he already knows Lara.

     As the war goes on, his love for Lara grows and grows, and then one day, she is able to leave. Yuri goes home to Tonya and their new son Sasha and discovers that their huge house has been used by Red officials for housing other locals. Soon, they realize they have to leave. And who should help them leave? Yuri’s long-lost brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), a Bolshevik who decides to help Yuri despite the political conflict. So Yuri, Tonya, her father, and Sasha take a train to Varykino far away, and the struggle of the war starts hitting home for them.

     I’ll try to explain as much as I can in a small amount of space. At one point when the train stops, Yuri goes for a walk and finds himself captured by Red soldiers. He meets their leader, Strelnikov—Pasha’s new alias. When Yuri tells him about Lara, Strelnikov eventually lets him go. The four reach Varykino to find the property they had there locked up by the government, manage to fix up a nearby cottage to live in, and Tonya gets ready for bearing her new child with Yuri. Yuri, however, finds Lara in a town nearby and ends up having an affair with her. Then one day, when he realizes he can’t do that to his pregnant wife, he goes to Lara’s house and leaves her—and on his way home gets captured by more soldiers and is forced to serve as a medical officer. He never sees Tonya or his children again.

     One night, in the middle of a frozen, snowy battlefield, Yuri simply turns around and heads away from the war. By the time he reaches the nearest city, Yuriatin, he is practically frozen to the point of death, and he longs to see his family again. But one morning, he wakes up in Lara’s home, with whom he stays until Victor comes back, almost out of nowhere, and tells them that they have to flee. Strelnikov—or Pasha or whatever you want to call him—has been arrested and shot himself on his way to trial, and now Lara is in danger. Lara ends up leaving with Victor, leaving Yuri to find another way to them.

     He never does. Then almost ten years later, he catches a glimpse of Lara down the street, but his failing heart prevents him from getting to her—while running to his lover, he has a heart attack and dies. And now that I’ve written all this, I see how dark this story actually is. The movie is shot beautifully, but the story is very sad. The tone of the story is almost as cold as its setting. We even see images of bodies in front of machine guns along the lines of battle, literally frozen in their place. And one little line that struck me near the end of the film is when Yuri and Lara have had to flee and find Yuri’s childhood home, where they and Lara’s daughter live until Victor comes to warn them. Lara is scared—she realizes she’s in the middle of a frozen wasteland, wolves howling outside and the weather keeping her awake at night. On the verge of a breakdown, she tells Yuri: “This is an awful time to be alive.” Yuri tries to convince her that it isn’t, but it’s hard. And even in the end, it is probably hard for Lara to believe it.

     Do you think that’s what some people in our world are saying right now amidst all this tragedy? “This is an awful time to be alive”? I believe that people have been saying that since the beginning of the world. This is a fallen world, filled with sin and devastation, and at times it feels terrible to be alive. I saw this film and knew that I should address this. But what could I say? The only way that I could say something worth saying was if God gave me the words to speak. The next day, he did. In my devotions, I read 2 Corinthians 5, which I feel perfectly describes the conflict between living a worldly life and longing for a heavenly one. “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked.” (5:1-2) The Apostle Paul goes on and says in the following verses, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (5:6-9)

     What a profound statement! Paul tells the Corinthians—and us—that even while we suffer on this earth, we need to remember that we have a home waiting for us in Heaven: an eternal, pure, glorious home with Christ! So even while we are on this earth, we need to “make it our goal to please him”. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find encouragement in God’s words (not mine) to live your life for Him even through worldly suffering; for one day, these things will pass away, and we will live gloriously with our God and our Savior.

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