***½/**** Image C+ Sound C+
starring Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta
screenplay by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay & Satyajit Ray, based on Bandyopadhyay's novel
directed by Satyajit Ray
***/**** Image B- Sound B
starring Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Alok Chakravarty, Swapan Mukherjee
screenplay by Satyajit Ray, based on the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
directed by Satyajit Ray
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Through some strange executive decision, FFC was given the option of reviewing only two-thirds of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. Note that the word "trilogy" generally indicates three parts; note also that the omitted film, Aparajito, constitutes the middle of this particular trilogy, making the experience of watching movies one (Panther Panchali) and three (The World of Apu) in conjunction seem weirdly disconnected. No matter: Complete or not, revisiting even just the pair helped me to better appreciate the achievement of two of the most hallowed films ever made, each of which I had underrated when I saw them initially on VHS some years ago. And while The World of Apu seems to me to be the weakest of the lot, Pather Panchali more than justifies its position as a precious jewel in the world-cinema crown.
Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the series follows the hard life of a Bengali boy named Apu from birth to adulthood, with Pather Panchali covering Apu's early life. The poor family into which he is born has issues with the relatives who run the family orchard: not only is underemployed father heavily in debt to them, but willful older daughter Durga has a habit of stealing the guava fruit from their trees, causing them to unfairly peg mother as a failure and a bad influence. Mother is at the centre of the film, the one who keeps the tattered household in shape as father dreams of becoming a writer and sullen Durga gets into trouble; she also has to hold down the fort when father looks for work far from home.
When I first saw Pather Panchali, I was put off by its meandering structure: as it seemed to lack the tight thematic focus I associate with great filmmaking, I grew impatient with its episodic approach to the narrative. But I can now see that this quality is key to its success. The film isn't willing to impose a thesis onto the trials of the family--to do so would be to reduce them to models within some ideological diorama, and Ray is more interested in letting them define themselves than in pressing them into symbolic service. Time ebbs and flows, with events, such as the storm that batters the dilapidated family home and conspires to make Durga seriously ill, happening without rhyme or reason and with characters assaulted by events that come out of nowhere--it's about the chaos of life, where ambitions are cut short by expediency and tragedy strikes without anything so vulgar as poetic justice. In a sense, Pather Panchali is about the silence of God as much as any Bergman opus, and as Apu's family weathers their various storms, it values personal strength over appeals to higher authorities.
To this end, Ray employs an understated style. While it's as rigorously controlled as that of any other great filmmaker, it's not interested in clubbing you over the head with its virtuosity. Subtly, Ray's compositions place the characters in their environments, framing them in the structure of the house grounds or inundating them with the wilderness that surrounds it; just as the leads are buffeted by fate, they are humbled by the vastness of the world around them, leading to either sweet reverie (as when Durga and Apu find themselves in a field of plumed reeds) or entrapment (the penniless children at the front gate when the candyman arrives). But there's no look-Ma-cool-shot at work here: Ray's aesthetics are functional without being decorative, connecting you to the narrative events that a more aggressive formalism would likely have obscured.
Aparajito intervenes between the two movies discussed herein--it starts in the city with the death of Apu's father, depicts Apu achieving at school, and concludes with Apu's mother dying. When we meet Apu at the top of The World of Apu, he's out of school with no prospects and occasionally working on an autobiographical novel he's sure will be a masterpiece. Fate intervenes in the form of a friend who lures him out of Calcutta in search of a job; winding up at a wedding, he is pressed into service as the groom when the original match turns out to be insane. Returning to the city, Apu and his new, beautiful wife Aparna form a bond of love that is shattered when she dies in childbirth; the grief-stricken Apu turns into a wanderer, shunning his son and hoping to bury himself in a loner's obscurity.
After the flowing rivers of Pather Panchali and Aparajito, The World of Apu is something of an anomaly. The film is more start/stop than the other two films, resulting in a little lost momentum. We are constantly jolted out of the flow of events by changes in tone; there is also, until the tragedy that casts it into sorrow, a slightly cutesy approach to both Apu's relationship with his friend and his budding relationship with Aparna that frankly doesn't sit well. But if it begins without the teeth of its predecessors, The World of Apu redeems itself by its end: the shattered Apu is lost and adrift, his new family seething with rage at the abandonment of his son. It ties the good loose ends embedded in the rest of the film together with a concentrated blast of sorrow. It's not the great work the first two pictures are, but it has its virtues and is no slouch in the things it does well.
Time has not been kind to the Apu trilogy--at least, it hasn't been kind to the prints Columbia TriStar committed to DVD. Pather Panchali's fullscreen disc uses a source best described as less-than-optimal: scratches are fairly constant throughout the film, with one scene practically jittering off the sprockets; as far as the transfer is concerned, it gets by with reasonable sharpness, though shadow detail is slightly poor. The source for the 2.0 mono sound has also enjoyed better days, its tone somewhat muffled and almost metallic-sounding, while occasional dropouts mar it further. The World of Apu's fullscreen presentation fares a little better, with fewer (emphasis on fewer) print defects bedevilling the image, though it's still a far cry from ideal. The sound, however, is slightly more distinguished than Pather Panchali's. There are no extras on either platter.
- Pather Panchali
126 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; Bengali DD 2.0 (Mono); English subtitles; DVD-5; Region One; Columbia TriStar
- The World of Apu
107 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; Bengali DD 2.0 (Mono); English subtitles; DVD-5; Region One; Columbia TriStar