Pather Panchali (1955)

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Pather Panchali is one of those films that instantly helps you to recognize the merit of the cinema. It’s a cultural artifact allowing us to come to grips with the fact there is a world far larger than our little pocket of existence. Satyajit Ray does that for us here in his affecting debut by relating India to us through stark realism. It pierces to the core and captivates its audience through simple beauties. Simultaneously, he manages to touch on universal truths that prove our very commonalities as human beings.

I must admit to being fairly ignorant about many of the nooks and crannies of international film and so I needed this movie just like I needed the work of Ousmane Sembène and no doubt the films of many other directors still yet to be discovered.

In this particular instance, I deeply appreciated Pather Panchali because this is not a story told by Rudyard Kipling about a British Colony or even a Hollywood adaptation of an albeit heartwarming tale like Lion (2016). This is Ray’s picture. For all intent and purposes, told from his perspective as he so chooses. He has agency if we desire to use the terminology. It allows this to be a truly intimate portrait crafted by a budding Indian visionary as a showcase to the world abroad.

Ravi Shankar is best remembered for his connection to George Harrison but his score featured here, consisting solely of his virtuoso sitar playing, adds a strain of traditional instrumentation, further blessing the film with a sense of native identity.

Maybe this is a highly romanticized portrait. I cannot personally speak to this either, but there is a paradoxical even spellbinding quality to the imagery as it unfolds. We are seeing the everyday lives of this family. We see them in their humble means, their poverty even, and yet though we are cognizant of it, somehow it doesn’t completely register because their world somehow manages to be so rich.

The reflections in a stream reminded me of the images in Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) when he captures the light through the trees. Ray is equally content with documenting the immaculate construction of nature at hand. Delicate as it is magnificent.

But against this backdrop, he unfurls a perceptive slice of life that’s its own brand of neorealism — never rushing the ordinary moments — allowing them the space to unfold of their own accord. It methodically seeks out the fascination in these common things such as the whistling of the wind, passing trains, water lilies, and incoming rainstorms.

Still, it’s about the people too and they make up the glut of the story. The most mundane of these moments made me smile with fond recognition. Two boys playing tic tac toe on their slate instead of doing sums at school. A dog and cat pawing at one another. A little boy combing his stringy locks of black hair or running around his family’s rickety home with his homemade bow and arrow as his mom chides him to finish his food.

Instead of an ice cream truck, they have a traveling sweet seller and they always beg their father for money when they see the man off in the distance. Sometimes they get it but more often they follow him to their neighbor’s to see if their playmates were so lucky as to get some sweets.

The individual characters we meet are no less intriguing and all of them, as far as I know, are amateur performers. The big sister Durga takes fallen fruit from a neighbor’s yard to give to her old auntie. But such practices get her accosted and labeled a nuisance. Auntie meanwhile, moves creakily, her face weathered by a tough life, hunched over and missing most of her teeth. Yet there’s still fight left in her and an indefatigable spirit.

The husband, though he struggles to provide for his family and oftentimes doesn’t even get paid regularly when he is working, aspires to write in his few idle hours because his forefathers were authors in their own right.

His wife has her own fears about being alone so often as he’s off at work or trying to find work. It leaves her by herself taking care of their degrading home and watching over their kids in a society with a poor support system. She has no one to turn too aside from the humiliating charity of neighbors.

Then, last but not least is little Apu and while he might not be our main character — all the family play equally important roles — it’s his point of view that’s most accessible. Ray clings to his face with soft zooms or closeups catching his reactions to all sorts of events. Young Apu peers at the world inquisitively with steely eyes. Very rarely does he speak but he’s a constant observer of the everyday.

He’s the herald of letters which come few and far between when his father is away. He and Durga frolick around the train tracks as the belching locomotive passes by. He gets into his sister’s humble cache of foil in her toy box to craft a prince’s crown. Then shares sleeping quarters with his sister in their meager lean-to that looks like it will all but collapse in the wake of the rainy season.

Certainly, there are dramatic turns in the broader story of this family unit but they are rooted in the real-life events that we experience in the day-to-day. Debts to pay off. Saving face with the neighbors who needlessly gossip. Family members passing away. Husbands gone with barely a word because lines of communication are difficult. The innate desire to want more out of life even if it’s a simple home to call your own and a better future for your kids.

What makes Pather Panchali resonate to the very last frame as we watch this family move on to the next stage in their life, is not how different they are from us. It’s how similar. Because, yes, this is a picture of an impoverished Indian family but it no doubt can speak into any person’s life who is willing to be open to its story like an inquisitive child. Ready and willing to see the world for all its innumerable complexities both the sorrowful and the joyously light.

4.5/5 Stars

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Enzo_Staiola_in_Bicycle_ThievesThe original title in Italian is Ladri di biclette and I’ve seen it translated different ways namely Bicycle Thieves or The Bicycle Thief. Personally, the latter seems more powerful because it develops the ambiguity of the film right in the title. It’s only until later when all the implications truly sink in.

Vittorio De Sica’s film is unequivocally emblematic of the neorealist movement.The most notable traits are the images taken straight off the streets of Rome, depressed and forlorn as they are. The setting truly does act as another character, adding a depth to the film that cannot be fabricated. You can’t fake some of these scenes either whether it’s Antonio scavenging for his bike in the pouring rain or the sheer mass of humanity that is found in places like the Piazza Vittorio.

It’s all there out in the open, with an apparent authenticity. In its simplicity, it feels like a real story with real people. This too is aided by De Sica casting non-actors in the main roles. In fact, Lamberto Maggiorani’s gaunt face is somewhat unremarkable (sharing some resemblance to Robert Duvall). Put him next to a poster of Rita Hayworth and it becomes even more evident. Still, he too feels human in a way that Hollywood stars just cannot quite pull off. It’s easy to believe him and invest in his story.

The same goes for his young son Bruno. He’s one of the cutest precocious kids you’ve ever seen, reminiscent of Jackie Coogan in Chaplin’s The Kid. But it’s also his point of view that makes this film even more tragic later on. This father-son relationship has weight to it.

And that makes Antonio’s dilemma that much more perturbing and ultimately so traumatic for the audience. De Sica’s film is so humble and yet its depths are ripe with so many universal truths and moments of sincerity.

Here is a man trying to provide for his family. His wife, his son, and his baby. Work is hard to come by in the post-war years. Any opportunity is a good one and Antonio gets that. But he needs a bike. His wife sacrifices her sheets so he can get his bike — so he can maintain their whole livelihood as a family.

That’s why it’s so crushing. Everything hangs in the balance of this unfortunate but seemingly mundane event. When Antonio’s bike is stolen it truly means tragedy because there is no lifeline, no direction to turn.

And he does his best to recover his stolen property. Going to the authorities, rounding up his friends to search for it, even tracking down the boy who undoubtedly nicked his bike, but none of it leads to a successful conclusion.

Another day finished with no hope for tomorrow, no money to bring home to his family so they can eat and live. He’s got nothing — a reality that’s made painfully obvious when he and Bruno sit down for dinner at a restaurant. They eat a meager meal as those just behind them gorge on a full buffet of courses. Bruno eyes them longingly and his father tries to lift his spirits, secretly knowing that he can never offer that to his boy.

It puts his lot into a jarring perspective, suggesting the state of the affairs in Italy. But what makes the Bicycle Thief truly timeless is not its scope or what it says on a grand, majestic scale. It’s an intimate film and perhaps the most personal story ever put to film. In a matter of a few moments, it says more with the moral dilemma of Antonio than many lesser films conjure up in a couple hours.

And because this is not a Classical Hollywood film, it does not sell out to its audience. There is no obligation to the viewer to keep them from being downtrodden — because that might rub them the wrong way and actually evoke a searing response. But there can be beauty in that and De Sica’s film is certainly beautiful for precisely those reasons.

It feels real, it feels honest, and rather than sugar coating the world, it draws up a reality that is almost as old as the world itself. So yes, this film is so-called “Neorealist” and yes, it most certainly makes good use of its contemporary setting of Rome in the 1940s. But if any film can claim timelessness Bicycle Thief might just be the best bet because at its core are the type of issues that are not unique to time, space, language, or any other man-made barrier. Every person knows what it means to steal — to battle with their conscience — upending the moral framework that guides their lives. That hasn’t changed even if the context has and that makes The Bicycle Thief continually relevant.

It ambushes us with the same emotional wallop each and every time. I mentioned Chaplin before briefly, but it didn’t occur to me until some time later that we leave our characters walking off into the sunset rather like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, except it’s a very sad sunset indeed.

5/5 Stars

Rome, Open City (1945)

Directed by Roberto Rossellini this Italian neorealist film depicts the harsh realities of life in Rome during WWII during Nazi occupation. We are given an inside look at the bravery and everyday lives of these people. We become familiar with a fugitive engineer and resistance leader. He gains assistance from a kindly and collected priest who also runs a church. Their stories intertwine with a widowed woman who is just about to be remarried, a beautiful girlfriend, and a Gestapo office who is intent on stopping the resistance. After one tragic event everything continues on a downward spiral. The fugitive Manfredi and the priest, are both betrayed. Don Pietro must look on as the other man is brutally tortured to the point of death. Next, the Gestapo try to use the priest’s own beliefs against him and yet he will not yield either. He too then faces a fate just as horrible. This film at times was brutally realistic and it is perhaps one of the most moving films I have seen. We do not normally think of the struggles of Italians during WWII since Mussolini was allied with Hitler, however much like the French or even Germans, they faced tremendous danger and hardship. Furthermore, it humanized the Italians in my mind a great deal. This is the first film of the war trilogy that I have seen and now I want to see the other two. As you can see I’m still a little fuzzy on my Italian history and I would love to learn more.

5/5 Stars

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

This Italian post-war neo-realist film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, is about a man who has his bicycle stolen and then must find it in order to continue working. Antonio Ricci is a man desperate for a job and he is fortunate enough to get an opportunity. However, he needs a bike and he sold his trying to provide for his family. He gets enough money to buy it back and he starts his days work pasting posters up in Rome. While his back is turned his bicycle is stolen and the culprit gets away. Because it is his livelihood Antonio desperately searches first with his friends and then with his son Bruno. After much looking he believes he has found the thief but with no proof the boy gets off. As the day ends Antonio chooses the one option left with no avail. This film is wonderfully simple and beautifully realistic. You feel deeply for this man who is by no means perfect, in fact he has many faults. But he is simply human. In a sense we are left with a cliffhanger ending that leaves us anxious for him.

5/5 Stars