A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

When I first saw Pather Panchali I was in my early 20s and unprepared for anything so foreign to my experience either in life or in movies. And as is usual at that age, my response was to mock. So half a century passed, and when I saw it again a few months ago, both the world and I had changed. Now I've watched it again, because Turner Classic Movies scheduled it as part of a showing of the entire "Apu trilogy," and I wanted to see it in context with the other two films in the series, which I hadn't seen. It is, of course, a transformative experience -- even for one whom the years have transformed. What it shows us is both alien and familiar, and I wonder how I could have missed its resonance with the Southern poverty that I had witnessed in my own childhood: the significance of family, the problems consequent on adherence to a social code, the universal effect of wonder and fear of the unknown, the necessity of art, and so on. Central to it all is Ray's vision of the subject matter and the essential participation of Ravi Shankar's music and Subrata Mitra's cinematography. And of course the extraordinary performances: Kanu Bannerjee as the feckless, deluded father, clinging to a role no longer relevant in his world; Karuna Bannerjee as the long-suffering mother; Uma Das Gupta as Durga, the fated, slightly rebellious daughter; the fascinating Chunibala Devi as the aged "Auntie"; and 8-year-old Subir Banerjee as the wide-eyed Apu. It's still not an immediately accessible film, even for sophisticated Western viewers, but it will always be an essential one, not only as a landmark in the history of movie-making but also as an eye-opening human document of the sort that these fractious times need more than ever.