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I’ve had it with those streamlined, Oscar-horny biopic bore-fests! To cleanse my system from the standard fare of family-friendly enlightenment, I occasionally need to switch to the less Hollywood narration style infested parts of world cinema. Two separate inspirations helped:

Empire’s “100 Best Films of World Cinema” is a treasure trove for anybody who loves film. A brief check brought about at least 10 films among the top 50 that I have never seen or that I planned to see again for ages. Even some I have never heard of and that sound thrilling (“Come and See”).  Let’s dive in!

And then there is the Filmspotting marathons, and currently the Satyajit Ray marathon, that started with Pather Panchali, a film that had been sitting on my virtual book/film shelf since 2010, when it was first recommended to me. And now, one night, after an overdose of “Unbroken” / “Selma” / “American Sniper” / “Imitation Game” etc. mediocrity … this was exactly what I needed. A film about nothing much happening to a bunch of poor and a bunch of less poor people somewhere in Bengal’s (is that how you write it?) countryside. A family scene in all its lovely depiction of  the beauty and cruelty of childhood whatever the circumstances. A cruel highlight on the way the oldest generation of a family has to struggle for their role in the modern family, always exposed to the danger of being pushed around or even expelled from the protective family circle. A film about the pressure imposed on individuals and families by tradition and their representatives (“you should have talked to the village elders first”), about self-delusion (“I will go to the city and find the money we need”). Maybe primarily about the casual cruelty of the world, or fate, creating new life and taking away other lives at random and without much caring about the pain and the consequences. Because the wheel of life keeps turning.

The film is shot in calm black and white that looks beautiful despite the slightly crappy transfer on my DVD, the actors are all splendid whatever the part they had to fill. Interestingly, nobody ever qualified (at least to me) as the film’s main character. The family mother needs to shoulder most responsibility, needs to be good guy and bad guy, needs to defend her possibly stealing children against the accusing  neighbours, needs to be humble towards those neighbours because she needs their current and future loans. She is suffering most from the downsides of being the unofficial head of the family, with her husband the useless poet and religious functionary being pretty much a bit of decoration in the household, if he is around at all. To me, the film circled around the film’s girl daughter, a lively and unorthodox free spirit bouncing around with energy and wit. At some point late in the film it becomes clear that this may have been a cruel trap set by the script for the audience, and it is not a pleasant moment when you realise you’ve been had. This finale is devastating in many respects, it seems the director wants to shoot a new bullet at you every other minute, as a punishment  for having been complacent for the last 90 minutes, for indulging in the illusion of romantic countryside life of simple but satisfied people.

I loved the sentence in Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review: “Standing above fashion, [the trilogy] creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived.”  That is true. I felt very much at home there, could relate to just about any of the characters, felt attached to each and every one of them like in an ultra-modern first person immersion game where you can pick the character you want to inhibit.

I do not know whether the following two films that follow the fate of the family’s small son are available, but I will certainly try to lay my hands on them to see whether this level of masterful film making was sustained by Ray.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/pather-panchali-song-of-the-little-road/

Review of the whole trilogy:

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-apu-trilogy-1959

 

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