Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Satyajit Ray is one of the great filmmakers of world cinema that I have somehow managed to avoid. Not intentionally, mind you, as copies of his movies haven’t been that accessible for the past few decades. My local Tower Records (RIP) video store had “The Apu Trilogy” on VHS sometime in the late ’90s and I think that was the last time I saw Ray’s films in the wild. The always great Criterion Collection has restored a number of Ray’s masterworks, including “The Apu Trilogy,” so I headed off to Film Forum alongside Fabrizio and PR to catch “Pather Panchali,” the first installment in the series.
Although I was eager to see the movie, part of me was anxious too. It can be tough getting into the groove of classic works — the inevitable datedness of the acting and storytelling, the bullying critical weight, the general eat-your-vegetables vibe. But thankfully, despite all of that, the movie delivered for me. Ray’s movie, about a poor rural family living in the Bengali jungle, moves effortlessly from social anthropology to childhood fantasy to family drama, frequently within the same scene, yet never feels confused or rushed. While the plot isn’t strong in the traditional sense and the pace is leisurely, it’s full of moments of incident and observation such that I was never bored. I found all three female performances — by Uma Das Gupta, Karuna Bannerjee, and Chunibala Devi as the young girl, mother, and old auntie respectively — to be particularly affecting. And as my colleagues note below, the Criterion 4K restoration is stunning. I can’t wait to catch up with the other two volumes in the trilogy when they’re released on Blu-ray.
Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I find it hard to write about “Pather Panchali.” It’s almost too fine-grained, its effects too integrated, to be picked apart. I think this explains why contemporary viewers tend to have difficulty getting on director Satyajit Ray’s wavelength: His methods are so subtle, and his manner so tranquil, that it’s easy to come away from his movies feeling underwhelmed. Very little in the picture is proffered in the accustomed dramaturgical way. Rather, Ray works on our subconscious understandings of families and communities, coaxing them to the surface using Griffith-style vignettes (they’re like stories unto themselves) and repeated motifs of movement and image. The result is so musically cohesive that it can play tricks with your sense of time: Near the end I couldn’t tell whether I’d been sitting there for thirty minutes or two hours. For Western viewers the rural Indian setting is inordinately foreign, but any hint of exoticism is instantaneously subsumed by the universality of the subjects. Who isn’t familiar with the shirker father, his responsibilities forever subordinated to his crackpot dreams, or the eternally harried mother, her hopes on the verge of curdling into resignation? Though the movie is ostensibly about the family’s youngest member, the boy Apu, his older family members command the proceedings. This may be Ray’s way of suggesting that our earliest years are our least autonomous: that, as very young children, we understand ourselves through our elders. Aside from Apu’s mother, played with supreme sensitivity by Karuna Bannerjee, the most vivid character is his teen sister Durga, portrayed by the glinting-eyed Uma Das Gupta. It’s through the mischievous Durga that Apu gleans an understanding of life outside his home, and it’s in tagging along with her that he receives his first vision of a larger world. In the film’s key set-piece, the only time in the movie that Ray permits his camera outside the family environs, Durga and Apu spot a train. Here Ray uncorks a vision of almost novelistic richness: The black engine barrels across a meadow; the children see it, run up to it, but are not quite able to catch or comprehend it; and then it’s gone almost before it can be fixed into memory. It’s both an intimation of the world’s vastness and a portent of its boundaries. And it has an immediate payoff: During the kids’ return home they find their aged auntie dead in the forest. This strange and beautiful sequence, encompassing the birth of adult consciousness and its final dissolution, is like a miniature of existence.
Paleo Retiree writes:
This was viewing #3 for me of “Pather Panchali.” I saw it for the first time in college, on a small screen, projected from a scratchy 16mm print; then a decade or so later in New York City, on a big screen (but from an equally scratchy print). The most startling thing for me about watching the film this time around was how fucking great I thought it was. In my memory I’d slotted it as a good, sensitive little film — the beginnings of an important career, something like Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” touching in itself but valuable mostly as a portent of greater things to come. I’d never thought of it as one of my favorites of Ray’s films. But I was near-overwhelmed, on three or four levels, by watching “Pather Panchali” this time. It may have been Ray’s first movie (he made it when he was 33 years old), but it’s amazingly mature, full-bodied and distinctive — quite the equivalent, as far as I’m concerned, of Chekhov’s greatest plays. The Criterion restoration of the print is awesome, by the way. Given my previous experiences with the film I’d always assumed that no such thing as a pristine print of the film existed, or could exist. Maybe Bengali film-processing plants were shitty back in the day, what did I know? But there are very few flaws in the current print, and, although digital, it has some of the crystalline sparkle and richness that filmbuffs associate with the best-looking movies of the late silent era. Seldom has black and white looked so poetic, or so soulful.
Pleased that Blowhard, Esq. was able to find the movie’s wavelength. During a cultural era that’s overfull of effects, blatantness and fantasy, that’s a real accomplishment. We’ll turn him into a pissy, snobby film connoisseur yet. Fabrizio does a fab job above of evoking the film’s shimmering, tranquil-yet-pungent feeling. Watching the film is like looking at a pond and, as your vision both bounces off the surface and penetrates into the depths, and as your thoughts dissolve and become one with the water below and the sky above, finding the entire world there. I’ll add just a few things.
- “Pather Panchali” is a perfectly amazing fusion of literature, photography, music, drama and film. This used to be one of the dreams of moviemakers, by the way — to bring all of the classical arts together. Today’s films often seem, by contrast, completely disconnected from traditional culture, preoccupied instead with being media blowouts (bouncing off of graphics, ads, TV, sports, magazines). So the film is a great reminder of how powerful the classical arts can be, as well as a reminder of the kinds of dreams that artists and audiences once had for movies.
- I was awestruck by (among other things) the film’s dramaturgy and construction. The story is, in essence, the tale of a family that has moved from the city to a small village, to occupy the father’s old family house there and to try to make a go of life. How will they manage? Ray deepens and expands nearly every element that comes up along the way, from characters (both major and minor) to motifs: insects, water, paths, a necklace, jars. Elements that seem completely inconsequential, even incidental, on first appearance make cyclical returns, deepening and showing off new dimensions each time ’round. The cumulative impact of all this was, I found, wrenching and moving in the best way. The film gave my emotions and my imagination quite a workout, and man did that feel good.
- Given that the surface of the picture is anthropological/neorealist — Ray was apparenty inspired to turn to filmmaking by meeting the great Jean Renoir and viewing De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” — it’s quite amazing how effectively the film brings the mythological realm into consciousness too. This is a specific family in a specific village facing specific challenges, and the film certainly works well experienced on that level alone. But I found it impossible not to experience the story as one of gods, spirits and natural forces too. There’s a Bollywood/”Mahabharata” dimension to the movie, it just happens to take place more in your brain than it does onscreen. But our experience of consciousness is just as real to us as our experience of the external world, isn’t it?