Tuesday, December 1, 2015

#783: Pather Panchali

(Satyajit Ray, 1955)

I watched Pather Panchali a few years ago in a version that was so bad that I decided to wait for the restoration to watch the next two films in the series. The quality of the film's image - which was worse than many budget restorations of silent films I have seen - was so bad that it was difficult to get into the story even. So when I blind bought the trilogy at the most recent B&N 50% sale, I decided I had to rewatch Pather to get the full effect. I was absolutely right - this viewing was a revelation of the kind you rarely get, and Pather Panchali is certainly one of the great films of cinema.

Pather Panchali begins before its supposed protagonist is born, and in many ways the film is a passing of the torch from one Ray child, the sister who steals fruit from an orchard that once belonged to her family, to another, Apu, a young boy whose watchful eye and innocent perspective are a stand-in for that of the viewer's own lens. Although my own children are younger than this pair and reversed in gender order, the relationship is immediately recognizable, comprising both battle-weary enemies and siblings with an unbreakable bond of love. The sad deaths that consume the final third of the film are of the gut-wrenching variety, though the simple poetic framing of Ray's camera gives us the big picture and never lets us forget the larger story at work.

The fact that Ray didn't initially plan on making the other two films in the trilogy lend the final moments an ambivalence that the knowledge of subsequent films has replaced with hope and a sense of beginnings. Apu only knew this world for a short time and it will be difficult for him to recall many of the things that shaped him. As a complete story, however, the film's structure shifts away from establishing details to a portrait of a family struggling to free themselves from poverty. Until Apu finds the necklace, the true protagonist of the film is the mother, desperate to transcend the shame her daughter and husband have brought upon her and struggling to make a life in difficult circumstances. She is a remarkable character only because Ray chooses to make her remarkable, and it lends the film its humanist qualities, a trait that defined world cinema post-Rome, Open City and pre-Breathless.

But even in the context of a thriving international film community, Pather Panchali is striking. The movie stands out immediately just by nature of its subject matter, swimming in a wave of European and Japanese films that crashed into American arthouse theaters in the 50s. But the film distinguishes itself actively rather than through its mere existence. Perhaps the two things that stand out most to me are the sophistication of Ray's technique and the intimacy of his depiction of rural India. Although they are linked, it is worth addressing each separately.

Ray's technical proficiency was by no means predestined. Though he came from a distinguished family with a tradition of artists, he had never made a film when he began work on Pather Panchali, using his own money in initial shooting. The fact that India was almost non-existent on the international film scene further underscores the uphill battle Ray faced. Although Indian cinema began producing neorealist work after independence, Ray's film was the first to generate any notable attention in the West, meaning he no roadmap for this kind of success (which is not to imply he was expecting it or crafting the film with this in mind). His crew had little experience, his actors were mainly amateurs, and his funding meant that many techniques and multiple takes were often unavailable. Still, the film manages to deliver a style that was both elementary and intellectual. The way Ray blocks his characters and the moments he chooses to move the camera have rarely been improved upon in the ensuing 60 years. Many of his shots in the fields and the forest are stunning displays of black and white cinematography. I was particularly struck by his balance of Japanese formalism, often with minimal cinematic flourishes when in intimate household moments with the family, and Western naturalism, both in his scenic shots and in the way that the village sinks into the forest and water around it. The camera is both the documentarian and poet

Ray was famously inspired by Bicycle Thieves to make movies, and this is clear in his depiction of the family's struggles in his debut film. Yet the jump for De Sica from his stature in Italian society (he was raised in poverty in Lazio outside of Rome) to the world of Antonio and his son in Bicycle Thieves is not hard to contemplate. Although it was certainly impossible for Ray to ignore poverty in his own country, the jump from his own bubble to the world of Apu is extraordinary. That Ray was able to enter this world without presenting it as "separate" from that of the viewer is even more impressive. Part of this is the proximity of such living conditions - Ray only needed to go a few miles outside of the city to shoot Pather Panchali, something that would be difficult to achieve in Europe or America. But most of it stems from his gentle hand with the camera and his dedication to the universality of his characters' struggle. Pather Panchali is not about a poor Indian family any more than Home Alone is about the difficulties of life in the wealthy Chicago suburbs. Yes, this is a world very different from our own (and from Ray's), but it is also about people who love, work, gossip, mourn. They are petty or angry sometimes and elated and entertained others. The way Ray reserves judgement allows us to see these emotions through their eyes instead of through our own or Ray's. When Apu goes to see the train, we begin to feel what it must have been like to see a train for the very first time anywhere in the world, what power and beauty one could experience with the revelation of industry. It frees the moment from a contrast in societies and allows it to simply stand. It's consequently one of the great scenes I've ever seen.

I won't be watching these in close viewings - I've decided to space them out over a few weeks to give each film time to breathe. But I am certainly looking forward to the next two films, and I remain grateful that Criterion and its partners put so much love into the finished product. Pather Panchali's place in history can be hard to overstate and seeing it look this beautiful reminds even the most jaded cineaste that there are still treasures to be uncovered and rediscovered.

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