The Apu Trilogy
Satyajit Ray (9155-1960)
Here, cribbed from the Wiki, is the kind of critical praise that generally gets heaped on Pather Panchali, the first movie of the Apu Trilogy:
- Newsweek critic Jack Kroll reviewed the film as "One of the most stunning first films in movie history. Ray is a welcome jolt of flesh, blood and spirit."
- Hazel-Dawn Dumpert of LA Weekly wrote that the film was "as deeply beautiful and plainly poetic as any movie ever made. Rare and exquisite."
- Philip French of The Observer has described Pather Panchali as "one of the greatest pictures ever made."
- The Village Voice ranked the film at #12 (tied with The Godfather) in its Top 250 "Best Films of the Century" list in 1999, based on a poll of critics.
- In 2005, the film was included in Time magazine's All-Time 100 Movies list.
This is all very unfortunate. Pather Panchali, made by amateurs on a shoestring budget, certainly shows that its makers have promise; in the two subsequent movies, which are quite good, that talent will be realized. Pather Panchali judged on its own merits, however, is not "one of the greatest pictures ever made." In fact, it is manifestly not a particularly good picture at all, not by any conventional standard, and it is pretty disingenuous to claim otherwise. It is melodramatic, tedious, predictable, and, well, amateurish.
Aiming at social drama and evocation of a place and time, Pather spends almost all the screen time in a handful of rooms; you finish the movie with no concept at all of what the village it purports to depict even looks like. The characters are thin caricatures of socials types. As a student film, mind you, it would be impressive enough: A+. As a social documentary, perhaps a C. As an entertainment, it is hard to evaluate. I really have a hard time imagining the person who would find it entertaining in the normal sense.
Now, I have no problem with criticism that confuses potential with merit; everybody wants to be the first one to catch the next big thing. But when we are still trumpeting this kind of movie as "great" half a century later, something a little bit damaging starts to happen. After all, Pather Panchali is exactly the kind of movie that makes people hate "foreign films" -- it is depressing, boring, a little too clever with its symbolism, formless in its plotting yet devoid of surprises. When you recommend it as "great," anyone who watches it on that recommendation will forever distrust film criticism, and probably anything with subtitles as well.
The second movie in the series, Aparajito, is enormously stronger, and the third, Apur Sansar, is better yet. As he learns how to make movies, Ray develops a striking visual style that captures the life and feel of the films' settings. The pace is quickened, and -- especially in Apur Sansar -- the characters achieve a depth, realism, and complexity that allows us to see them as fully human. To be sure, they still would not be the first movies I would reach for if I wanted to give a bright high school sophomore his first exposure to foreign film, but these later two movies would at least be entertaining and interesting for the educated casual viewer.
Plot: A coming of age epic. We meet Apu as a baby, and in the first installment we follow his village childhood. In Aparajito, we see his adolescence and young adulthood in a larger town and eventually in Calcutta, and in the final chapter we follow the events of his early adulthood. Along the way, he has many lucky breaks and sudden turns of good fortune, but experiences a staggering degree of loss and disappointment as well.
Visuals: Clumsy, muddy, and unvarying in the first film. Increasingly sophisticated and impressive in the second and third, either of which would be worth seeing on the big screen.
Dialogue: In Bengali, with a significant loss of cultural context occurring in translation, I suspect.
Prognosis: Recommended for anybody who enjoys movies made in languages other than English. I would watch Aparajito and Apur Sansar, and then go back and watch Pather Panchali last if you are really hooked. You don't really need to see it first to appreciate the other two.