Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Apu Trilogy"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Apu Trilogy
Satyajit Ray (1955-1960)

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.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you are very patient. The basic plot does sound interesting though. "To Be and To Have" was the French documentary that put me off foreign films for a while. If there is a plot, I can handle it and love it for the exotic qualities alone, but that one had not plot.

I recommend it to people that make me angry. :-)

You examine the films so well. It would be some good comedy for you to review one that is pure pop garbage with such an eye. Although you may have already done that type of thing. I wonder if I could guess the film from the review in such a case.

Chance said...

I agree with you on the trilogy; the first one is amateurish. I think the fact that a "serious" film came out of India influenced all the praise --- Western condescension disguised as encouragement. the other two films are, I think, terrific.

mysterymoor said...

I haven't seen this. It sounds like I might give it a go, but the fact that it's a triology makes me feel tired before even starting. I like the recommended for people who like watching films in other languages thing, it sounds quite strange to me, because I'm from Spain, so watching them in English would be the extraordinary thing for most people.

Rebel said...

Boo - I loved "Etre & Avoir"! It was extremely slow, but I think there's a pay off in little moments with the kids - like when Jojo washes his hands but misses the backs... and the kids asking each other "is he your friend?" - precious!

I don't think I'll be watching this film though.

Anonymous said...

I quite like these films. I saw Apur Sansar (AKA The World of Apu) at an arthouse cinema years back, and really loved it. I was going to mount a defense of Pather Panchali's limited palette--it is, after all, a film about childhood in rural poverty, surrounded by featureless woods and too few choices and one sad inadequate meal after another. Out of that claustrophobic beginning, the story of Apu's unfolding life is both tragic and miraculous. It does occur to me, though, I wasn't at my most critically astute the night we watched it. In all the films I was quite engaged emotionally. Two out of three made me cry, and the one that didn't had michael5000 peering at me curiously in key scenes to see if I was going to start up.

DrSchnell said...

You put your finger on a key aspect of criticism of any kind (movie, music, book, whatever) when a particular opinion becomes "conventional wisdom" or established "fact." For example, the notion that Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album of all time, by virtually every poll you ever read. Or that "Ishtar" is an unmitigated disaster, instead of the amusing, fun movie that I found it to be. Or... fill in the blank, you know plenty of examples. And you're seen as a philistine if you disagree with the assessment (I know that Michael5000, with what I remember as a history of claiming not to like the Beatles as much as he "should", probably has come in for his share of this, including probably from yours truly). Innovative it is, for its time. But hell, it's only the fourth-best Beatles album in my book (behind Abbey Road, Revolver, and the White Album, if you care). Anyway, the point is not to argue the merits of various Beatles' albums (or of the Beatles in general), but to use them as an example of the way that critics are often herd animals. Long live Ishtar!

Anonymous said...

The trouble is, we've been taught what to see and how to render what we see. If only we could be in the position of those men who did those wonderful drawings in Lascaux and Altimira! -Pablo Picasso