The Idiot

at the Brattle through Saturday

Not having read The Idiot, I cannot pass judgment on the fidelity of this 1951 film version by Akira Kurosawa, but even if I someday find that he and his co-writer took no liberties with Dostoevski's plot beyond setting it in twentieth-century Japan I doubt that I shall have to revise my opinion of the film. An artist's failures, of course, should be examined for the light they throw on his successes; but so crude is the directorial technique in The Idiot, so flagrant is the absence of any sort of suspense, that there can be no doubt that the film is a failure, and one that only dedicated Kurosawa fans will want to see. One leaves the theatre feeling that he has gone through not a catharsis but just a two-hour-and-forty-eight-minute ordeal.

The idiot in the adaptation is a former prisoner-of-war who had been sentenced to death by his American captors and then, at the last possible minute, reprieved. As a result, he developed something that the subtitles call dementia epilepsia and a resolve to be as kind as possible to everyone and everything. On his return to Japan, he begins practicing total selflessness, with the result that one person is murdered, another goes mad, and several, including himself, are left with ruined lives.

As this unhappy story unravels, it becomes increasingly clear why The Idiot was not released in this country until Kurosawa had established a reputation with his samurai films. For one thing, many of the actors are prone to excess, in one way or another. Toshiro Mifune, as a rowdy, alternates between bug-eyed rage and glowering indignation; Masayuki Mori, as the idiot, plays everything in a kind of sad-eyed slow motion that conveys saintliness but also causes boredom; and several secondary characters engage in the snorting histrionics that seem peculiarly Japanese. Moreover--presumably because The Idiot originally ran more than six and a half hours and was cut to its present length over Kurosawa's objections--the exposition, though it lasts forever, is extremely unclear, and the editing, both within and between scenes, is awkward and unrhythmical.

I don't mean to suggest, however, that The Idiot is entirely devoid of pleasures, even though most of them are purely visual. Two sequences in particular stand out, one at the beginning, one at the end. When the idiot first returns to his native Hokkaido, some shots of people and horses in the snowy streets have a refreshing, newsreel-like quality. And in the final half hour of the film, the shadow cast by an ornately carved screen takes on the aspect of a patterned hallucination.