#277. Pather Panchali (1955)

This movie is gorgeous and wonderful, more a portrait of impoverished domestic life than a plotted narrative, and I think it slapped extra hard for me because, following the challenge of Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, I was thinking this would be tough foreign fare to parse, laden with subtle indicators of social status and the like..

            Not at all.

            (I’m probably just being insecure and psyching myself out but period pieces from Japan seem so nuanced, like every gesture is fraught with implications about status or politics or custom or family, I always feel like it’s going over my head.)

            Pather Panchali is the first volume of the “Apu” trilogy, named after its child-teenage-adult protagonist, and it’s interesting to note that, with the footnoted exception of Sergei Eisenstein’s aborted Ivan the Terrible trilogy, this will be the first full trilogy to be featured on the List.

            (Bitta trivia: Bride of Frankenstein was the first sequel to appear; and Dracula was technically the first remake, since it’s a licensed adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, coming almost twenty years on the heels of F.W. Murnau’s bastardized Nosferatu.)

            I was struck a couple years ago, after watching the W.C. Fields vehicle It’s a Gift, that “Baby Huey,” thef amous cherubic adorable toddler whose presence is boasted on the film’s poster as though the kid’s got a direct supporting role to Fields himself—the kid’s hardly in the movie. And yeah, he’s cute when he does appear, but he doesn’t do anything terribly impressive.

            Subir Banerjee, who plays Apu here, is an untrained actor, maybe five or six years old, and he’s probably the most charming, adorable, believable child actor to’ve graced the List so far. And I think it’s because he doesn’t try to give his character any more nuance or detail but for the characteristics that seem to define all boys of this age: curiosity and hedonism (the latter is maybe too strong a word, but you know what I mean; he just wants to have fun).

            His dad is an academically-minded priest and his mom’s a housewife, and they live with (or near?) an elderly cousin of his father’s a sclerotic and withered old lady who seemed at first much more like a crazy grandmother. (I had one of those myself, incidentally. We called her Grandma Little. She was maybe 5’2”, a garage sale enthusiast who went out at 5 a.m. every Saturday morning with her friend Margaret to buy crystals and candles, random tchotchkes, things to crowd her apartment. At my high school graduation party she got wasted and couldn’t stand and just flailed on the couch, asking if she was fucked up and wishing me a happy birthday.)

            I’m at a point now of looking back on my childhood and feeling a nostalgia about how my brother and I would fuck around that’s now finally just about trumping my resentment of the bullying, and so the relationship here between Apu and his sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta) is a touching display of what also feels like a genuine young-sibling relationship. A moment-by-moment flux between affection and resentment. Her kindness to the crazy elderly cousin, otherwise shunned by all, makes her all the more endearing, endearing the audience with her kindness just as Apu does with his simple innocent charm.

            But then I also felt a serious pang for their mother, Sarba Jaya (Karuna Banerjee), who’s probably actually younger than me but who nonetheless looks like a peer, fraught with the responsibilities of a wife, a mother, a neighbor, a tenant. She know there’s no way of achieving anything close to perfection with any of these roles, but she works at it anyway. Tireless. No time for the sort of self-pity I’d be ladling over my head by the hour if I were in her position.

            There isn’t much of a story to recount here in summary: it’s just a portrait of their life. The little joys and the tragedies. It’s beautifully shot and is, for the most part, a warm depiction of a financially troubled domestic life; but there’s something elegiac about it. We’re very much in the moment with these characters and yet, without there being anything in even the final scene to suggest an impending sequel, it feels like the movie is looking wistfully back on something. Maybe that was the director’s intention.

            It’s one of the only movies that reeled me in, felt both totally familiar and totally foreign, and also somehow communicated the vibe of a memory. Maybe it’s the way that the camera will sometimes keep a distance form Durga and Apu, watch them play or idle by the water. How it’ll linger on the face of their wistfully pensive mother.

            The aforementioned tragedy is…difficult to process. Abrupt and, like all tragedy, it has a feeling of senselessness. Did this person’s death influence the story in a meaningful way? Did it contribute anything to the plot?

            Well, there isn’t a plot.

            Tragedy just happens.

            It hit me just about as hard as the tragedy we see in the opening act of Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It’s gutting and visceral and I can see how people who’d be otherwise totally aboard for such a beautiful movie might see it as too effective, undercutting the movie’s other attributes.

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