Not rated. I go back and forth about what should be the rating here. The movie deals with complex themes involving poverty and on screen death, but these moments are very tame. The death isn't meant to be exploitative nor shocking. They are very matter of fact. Thematically, make sure the kiddos are mature enough to deal with these moments because they can be scarring.
DIRECTOR: Satyajit Ray
I don't know what it was about this movie that forced me to hold off on reviewing it. I don't know what I really want to say about the movie. There's so much to talk about, but I left the movie unsure of how I felt about it. I definitely see that it is a powerful and important movie, but did I get the experience I was hoping to get? In class and in the blog, I regularly mention how a viewing audience is hoping that the movie either meets expectations or subverts expectations. Since I didn't have expectations because I have such little experience when it comes to Indian / Bengali film. One of my students this year schooled me when it came to Indian and Bollywood films, so I wanted to start with the fundamental works before going into the more contemporary stuff. But I have to acknowledge that I feel like a babe in the woods here. For some reason, Indian cinema has really never gotten into my viewing canon. (I watched Monsoon Wedding a few years ago, but that's pretty contemporary and uses a lot of Western aesthetics to pull it off.) I don't have any schooling when it comes to Indian cinema, so all I can do is understand that my education is lacking and approach it from a Western perspective.
The movie actually feels pretty Western in terms of narrative structure. I find it odd that that movie trilogy is called "The Apu Trilogy" (according to the box set from Criterion) because I didn't really see this movie about Apu. I thought for a while that this story was about Durga. (Okay, I started off this paragraph talking about how Western this movie and now I'm commenting on how there is no traditional protagonist.) Durga does draw a lot of attention in the movie, but she is more of a vehicle for the story to move forward. Let's establish what is going on in the story. The story looks at Apu's family and their terrifying level of poverty. Father is an idealist writer who has faith that God will provide. Mother is skeptical and simply trying to stay under the radar and not draw attention to the fact that the children sometimes have to do morally gray things to survive. Durga is the strongest character, willing to make choices and disappoint those around her for the greater good. Apu is ignorant of the world around him for the most part and lives a charmed life. Auntie hovers near death and is the lovable troublemaker of the family. The story, rather than following the narrative of a protagonist working towards a goal, takes the realistic approach of observing a family at a low point in their economic struggle. The movie is more about theme and mood than it is character. There is character growth and change in the story, primarily Mother and Durga, who mirror the way the world treats them. Mother goes from being shy and silent to angry and violent based on the way that the neighbor treats her. Durga, similarly, picks up violent and angry traits because of the way her mother now treats her.
But the film is shot in a Western style. While gorgeous, especially with the train passing by, the shots serve the overarching narrative. I'm kind of shocked by this. Part of this is due to the fact that the film is in black and white. The few Indian films I have experience with play with color more than I've seen other cultures do. Watching the film in black and white wrestled with my limited expectations more than I thought it would. I also wonder how much of this has to do with the restoration that Criterion gives all of its films. The blacks of the monochrome were impressive. I wouldn't say that this movie is layered in shadow by any means, but the limited use of shadow was inspiring. I compare the studio system films of the '50s in America to this film. Both cultures have monochromatic film using gray as its primary color palate, but it's odd to thing that the shades of gray play so heavily a role. The grays of American films like Bringing Up Baby gives the movie a very soft texture. Even Citizen Kane seems like the edges are muted, which I've always chalked up to technology. The gray of this movie gives it a very striking look. Look at the picture I chose above. That is typical of the movie. The lines are strong and defined, allowing the hard black lines to affect the way that the movie feels as a whole. I don't want to even imply that the movie has a documentary feel to it because it really doesn't. But the movie does have a bit of a contemporary look, despite being a film from '55. Like its offspring, the movie has a look that is unique, even if it is in something so simple as the uses of black in the film.
Because I like bummer movies real hard, I have to say that the movie is extremely effective when it comes to bummer themes. I love both the Kurosawa and Renoir versions of The Lower Depths and I love the neorealistic films of Italy like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. I don't know why I like things that are so somber and depressing. I would put the first in the series part of those movies. I don't know if I like it as much as those other movies. When it comes to The Lower Depths, particularly the Kurosawa version, the movie is actually pretty melodramatic. That story is a sledgehammer, constantly beating down on its characters. The themes of poverty can't really be avoided in that movie and the original play (Tolstoy? Some other famous Russian author?) doesn't want that theme to be missed. Umberto D is a much more subtle approach to the same theme, but that is still perhaps slightly more intense than Pather Panchali . Pather covers so many themes that the poverty almost becomes part of the setting. It is the world that these characters live in and the movie is, without a doubt, a commentary on the evils of poverty. But the movie also treats it very matter of factly. When I watch The Lower Depths, these people are part of the cursed caste of society. They have extraordinarily bad luck or have done something to deserve their cruel fates. Umberto D is more of a commentary that aging is viewed as a plague by society. Pather Panchali doesn't really have that view of poverty. At one point, the caste is brought up and that their fate is simply a result of consequence. There is no real criticism of the system that has made the family so poor. It is simply a sad look at the world of poverty from an emotional perspective. There is a moral that has to do with the father, but that almost seems like a character moment rather than a call to arms for the audience. The father's absence while looking for employment is the failing moment, not the poverty. I find that really interesting.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Pather Panchali's look at poverty is how real one of the moments really felt. One thing I keep hearing about poverty is that the poor look after each other more than the rich do. I have some experience working with the poor and I always found this moment to be the most untrue. Pather Panchali somewhat supports that theory. There is another family nearby who have only slightly more than the main family. The interactions between these two families is very telling about how people tend to treat each other when they have more than another. Not everyone treats the family poorly, but there is a certain scorn that comes across between the haves and have-nots. Mother also treats Auntie in the same way. Mother views Auntie, who has even less, as a blight on the family because of her needs. It breaks up the sympathy that Mother receives in this moment. She becomes a real character. I hate to bring the Bible into a story free from Christian influence, but I think of the story of the wise king. Perhaps this moment was intentional, but I really think that this story is more of a universal narrative. Also, there is this moment of realization that didn't exactly feel real towards the end with the cruel neighbor, but that can be chalked up either way. Movies have way weirder moments in stories. I do, however, love the final realization from Apu while going through Durga's things. I'm just thinking about this right now, but every character isn't idealized or demonized. Perhaps Ray knows that people aren't so binary as good and evil, but that people struggle to do what's best in a bad situation. That's what the poverty setting does for a story. It strips away creature comforts so people act with greater stakes. When survival is the basis for everything you do, how hard would it be to make the moral choice in every scenario.
I guess the movie is pretty impressive. The one thing that I didn't love is that the pacing really hurt to get through sometimes. When I watched half-an-hour of the movie, I swear that I thought I watched an hour. The movie drags, but that might be because I was watching it very late at night. (Summer means that movies take place after everyone else goes to bed.) That might be on me, but I had to break this one up into three sections. It is very slow, but the movie is important and striking. I have two more movies in this trilogy and I am excited to a point to watch them. I just don't know when I'll have the patience to do so.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.