Some movies have been in my life so long that I have no memory of when I first saw them, except to know that they’re my parents’ favorite movies, and by extension, some of my own: The Sound of Music, Giant, Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai. David Lean, the director of the latter two films, might be my parents’ favorite for the vastness of space he was able to capture in his lens, the intimacy of feeling, the way his characters often become trapped in situations of their own making.
Doctor Zhivago is the Lean film my parents return to most often, and the one that shatters me most thoroughly—a love story and a tragedy in equal measure, the elegantly lilting strings of a balalaika building upward and upward and upward until they are abruptly cut short. It makes me think of how my parents measure time: before the revolution, and after it.
Not the Russian Revolution, although that is the focus of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, adapted from the novel by Boris Pasternak, but the Iranian Revolution—1978 through 1979. My parents weren’t living in Iran then; they had already gingerly stepped forward into their second lives in America. There had been a prospect of maybe going back to their homeland, to a place that they say feels different, looks different, is different from the United States; but that was no longer possible. There are places you can’t go back to, and questions you can’t ask, and people you can’t be anymore. Doctor Zhivago is about all of that, and watching the movie as many times as I have is mostly about trying to understand my parents’ lives, failing, and desperately trying over and over again. It’s about losing something, and unceasingly searching for it, and wondering if love is ever enough.
“Feelings, insights, affections—it’s suddenly trivial now,” says the Bolshevik commander Strelnikov (Tom Courtenay), a man who used a revolution and a war to reinvent himself, to the poet Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif, gorgeous), whose writings are publicly outlawed by the Soviet regime and secretly admired by the Russian people. But that interiority is all Yuri has in a society that is controlled, watched, and surveilled. It’s all my parents had, too.
To be a first-generation American is to grow up realizing there are questions your immigrant parents absolutely won’t answer, parts of themselves they will never share. I know the bare sketches of my parents’ lives before they came to the United States, but I also know—intrinsically, maybe—what not to push. Maybe it’s a cliché to say an elementary school family tree assignment was an unexpected difficulty, but it was.
There were grandparents I didn’t know who had died, and aunts and uncles and cousins I would never know because they lived in Iran and couldn’t come visit us, and we couldn’t go visit them. A veil hanging over all of it, like the chadors and hijabs the Islamic government began to force all women to wear outside of the home after the Revolution. Iran’s women are fierce—they serve in the Iranian Parliament, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Fields Medal, practice jiu-jitsu in secret and win Olympic medals for taekwondo—but this mandatory covering is only one of many means of government control, of the diminishing of personal choice.
Everything I wanted to know about what my parents had gone through, what informed their decisions, what shaped their lives, was like picking at the edges of a scab, a wound not fully healed. The time to ask those questions never seemed right. Nothing about the Iranian Revolution seemed to work out like people wanted—not for people like my parents, or people like their friends, or people like the professors I had while studying Persian literature and film in college. They wanted freedom from monarchy and ended up with restriction through religion.
This is a culture that prized art and poetry and beauty (and wine!) for centuries, but not much of that was respected in the same way anymore. Not after the power grabs of the Iranian Revolution went the hardliners’ way, and not after the Islamic government consolidated authority throughout the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and not after increasingly fraught relationships with the rest of the world in the 1990s and 2000s. All this despite cries from inside the country, despite bloodshed in the streets.
Intellectuals disappeared, dissenters disappeared, writers and musicians and artists disappeared. My parents whispered their names. They hung their portraits on our library wall. And I rarely, possibly never, asked about them. Maybe I thought I couldn’t, or maybe I thought I shouldn’t. “Why dig deeper into my parents’ pain?” I rationalized then. “Why didn’t I care enough to ask?” I think now.
“We admire your brother very much,” says a dam worker to Lt. Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) at the beginning of Doctor Zhivago, in the 1950s, when Yevgraf is searching for a woman he suspects is his half-brother’s lost daughter. “Everybody seems to—now,” Yevgraf says back in Guinness’s crisp, perfectly commanding voice, but not even he has a response to the man’s follow-up: “We couldn’t admire him when we weren’t allowed to read him.”
What you’re allowed to do and not allowed to do comes up often in Doctor Zhivago. Where you’re allowed to work, what you’re allowed to read, who you’re allowed to love. The story begins before World War I, in two different spheres of Russian life. First is the upper-class world of Yuri, a young man who was adopted as a child by a well-to-do old-money family and has since excelled at nearly everything he tries: graduating in the top three of his class from medical school, attracting national and international acclaim for his deeply felt poetry. And then there’s Lara (Julie Christie, resplendent): 17 years old, working class, determined to win a scholarship to university, the daughter of a seamstress catering to wealthy clients, preyed upon by the well-connected government official and despicably manipulative villain, Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), who used to be a friend of her dead father’s.
Yuri has the empathy of an artist and the compassion of a healer. He sees his patients and is moved by their humanity, and when he meets Lara, he admires her resolve. It takes a certain kind of steadfastness to refuse a man like Komarovsky, whose obsession with Lara resulted first in an affair and then in sexual abuse, and that is what drives Lara for years afterward. When Yuri meets her again four years later, it’s on the Ukrainian Front during World War I, where he’s working as a field doctor and she has volunteered as a nurse. They’re each married—Yuri to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of the family he grew up with, and Lara to former labor organizer and political dissident Pasha Antipov (Courtenay), before he transforms himself into the merciless Strelnikov—but their love for each other is an undeniable thing.
When the dam worker learns who Yevgraf is in the beginning of Doctor Zhivago, he speaks of the titular man and “the Lara” with an air of wonder and reverence. Yuri’s most famous poems were about her, but also the uncertainty of living in a country in transition, with a past that now seemed unfathomably distant. “Wouldn’t it have been lovely if we met before?” Lara wonders, and the question nearly drives Yuri to insanity (“I think we may go mad if we think about all that”) not only because of the possibilities it holds but because of the reality that it never was. “I shall always think about it,” Lara replies, but her hope for the future is hollow. There can be no redemption of the past.
Lean understands the hazy nature of time, framing Yuri and Lara together in shots with fuzzy edges, like a treasured memory slowly slipping away. Most importantly, he lets Christie and Sharif explore the rhythms of their characters as they fall in love. As Yuri, Sharif’s eyes glitter with tears nearly every time he looks at Lara. That rawness is reminiscent of the emotion that washes over his face during his first conversation with Komarovsky, when the man admitted to knowing Yuri’s father and complimented the way “he was devoted to your mother.” Yuri guards the memories of his parents with the same fierceness it took Lara to stand up to her abuser, and he understands what the passion he feels for Lara means.
And as Lara, Christie has the unwavering glare of a woman who knows she has been wronged, who has been conditioned to believe that men never stay, who remembers how her mother almost killed herself when she learned of her daughter’s sexual relationship with Komarovsky. She refuses Yuri’s romantic overtures at first, but who doesn’t desire to love and to be loved? When they meet again, she is stunned into silence, and then overjoyed. “Your letters were full of her,” Tonya had said to Yuri when he returned from the front, noting how often Lara came up in his correspondence home. His heart was full of her, too, and all of them knew it. Yuri, Lara, Tonya, trapped in a maze of love and loss of their own making, stepping toward and backing away from each other over years of time, as the country around them roiled and rebelled.
“Adapt yourself,” a volunteer for the Red Guard tells Yuri after his service at the front has ended. When he returns to Moscow, he learns his house has been partitioned into living space for 13 families. Soviet officials are watching his every move, concerned that his popular poetry is anti-Communist. Time has mutated Yuri’s home into a place where everything is forbidden—honesty, sincerity, kindness—and his family must eventually flee. “Your attitude is noticed,” one of those party members says to Yuri before Yevgraf steps in to warn his half-brother that Moscow is no longer safe for him. But when your country is unrecognizable to you, where can you go?
My parents returned to Iran to marry—my father in a creamy ivory suit and crisp leather shoes, my mother in a satin dress with knife pleats and a lace veil—but came back to the United States to live. They said their vows and made their promises in a place they loved, and then they left. What kind of bravery does it take to start over? What depths of fortitude? The kind that Yuri and Tonya drew on to relocate their family to the Russian countryside, to starting new lives in the desolate Varykino, where each winter encases their cottage in depths of ice? Or the kind that inspires Yuri to leave the Red Army after being captured and forced to be their medical officer for two years? The decision almost seems lackadaisical, just a man on a horse, watching other men walk away from him in a misty, snowy field, turning backward instead of forward. But the simplicity of that motion—one path taken, another refused—is the end of one life and the beginning of another.
Yuri’s choice is one in a series of many that demonstrate his love for Tonya, his love for Lara, and his love for his country—and yet each source of affection is, with time, also a source of suffering. He learns that Tonya and their children fled Russia while he was held by the Red Army, and is haunted by visions of them trudging through snow, leaving him behind. He discovers that Lara is in the nearby village Yuryatin, and although they renew their love for each other, they’re found by Komarovsky, whose obsession with Lara has continued unabated. “Who are you to refuse me anything?” Komarovsky snarls. But he divulges that the couple is in danger and helps Lara escape, providing transport for her—pregnant with Yuri’s daughter—to Mongolia, where they can live in secrecy.
But Yuri? “He’ll never leave Russia,” Lara says, and she’s right. Years after they part, Yuri dies of a heart attack, thinking he spotted Lara walking by on a sidewalk, unable to gain her attention from the inside of a passing-by train. It’s a moment of profound, devastating loneliness in a film that specializes in them. Yuri is a boy when we first see him at his mother’s funeral, imagining what her body looks like inside its wooden casket. That night, he peers out of an icy window, listening to frozen branches tapping against the glass, his only possession the colorful balalaika that was his inheritance from his mother—and that he never had the talent to play, but years later, his daughter with Lara does. As an adult, he’s a half-frozen man in tattered clothes, a vacant, haunted look in his eyes as he flees the Red Army as a deserter. And in his last moments of happiness with Lara, he’s a romantic who refuses Komarovsky’s offer of help because he can’t abide being assisted by a man like that.
Lean excels at pinpointing how Yuri is a man out of place, struggling to understand a country around him that is changing all the time. Alone when watching a workers’ march and the ensuing military slaughter of the protestors from the balcony of his family’s palatial home. Alone when following the fragmented rays of sunlight piercing through the trees of a quiet, foggy forest. Alone when facing off against a pack of howling wolves. And alone when wandering through a reclaimed estate turned into a makeshift hospital, the only other living thing inside the home a vase of sunflowers, their petals slowly falling.
In death, Yuri is all of those selves: the boy abandoned, the citizen disillusioned, the man overcome by love. When he collapses in the street, he is overwhelmed by other bodies running to his aid, while the one he wants to see so badly—the woman who could be Lara—keeps on walking, oblivious to his pain. I cry so frantically every time I watch Yuri die that sometimes I feel like I’ve stopped breathing: mourning the life of a man emblematic of an idealism long gone, and mourning the lives my parents could have had.
“Don’t you want to believe it?” Yevgraf asks Tanya (Rita Tushingham), a young woman he thinks is Lara’s and Yuri’s missing daughter, after he tells her the story of his half-brother and the woman he loved. “Not if it isn’t true,” she replies, and there’s such yearning to that statement: the desire to truly know something, to examine the ridges and contours of it, to feel how it fits into a part of your heart that previously was unfilled.
Doctor Zhivago doesn’t have a happy ending. Aside from Yuri’s death, there’s Lara’s disappearance (“She died or vanished somewhere in one of the labor camps, a nameless number on a list that was afterward mislaid. That was quite common in those days,” Yevgraf says), and the realization that maybe Tanya won’t ever accept the truth of her parentage. And there’s the truth, of course, that millions of other people died during that time in Russia’s history, that countless families were pulled apart, that so many people were sent away and never came back. Not that different from the Iranian Revolution and what happened afterward. Not really.
“He kept a lot to himself,” Yevgraf says of Yuri, and I think of my parents. Of the lives they had before they met each other and before they married and before they realized the Iran they were born into was no longer theirs. Of all the things they keep hidden away, even now, even after they’ve lived the majority of their lives outside of a country they still call home. Of all the family they can’t embrace again. Of all the time they can’t get back.
I realize in my adulthood that maybe this is why my parents hold Doctor Zhivago so close to their hearts. Maybe they see Yuri and Lara in themselves: people who were denied a country and a way of life. “People will be different after the revolution,” the man who was once Pasha Antipov tells Lara. “It takes a while to get used to things, doesn’t it?” Yuri’s adoptive father says to him. Both were right and both were wrong, and that duality—the inescapably forward movement of time, and how people and places and identities are lost to the past, destroyed and mourned—is the aching tragedy of Doctor Zhivago.