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TSPDT 2013: India: Matri Bhumi

Posted by martinteller on March 17, 2013

I’ve been generally indifferent to Rossellini, which is not a very “cinephile” way to be, but few of his films have resonated with me.  As this documentary started, I wasn’t expecting to like it.  Then here comes the narrator with the usual trite observations and broad generalities, and I figured it would be a pretty dull “India 101” portrayal.  I braced myself for 90 minutes of “Look how different these Indians are” exoticism.

Then the film’s true nature revealed itself.  Like Nanook of the North, it uses obviously staged moments to reveal both cultural specificity and universal truths.  And like Paisan — one of the few Rossellinis I really enjoy — it has an episodic structure, with four discrete stories.  In the first, a mahmut courts a young woman while his beloved elephant also goes wooing.  In the second, a worker prepares to leave for his next job after seven years building a massive dam.  In the third, an elderly man living near the forest gains compassion for a tigress threatened by encroaching iron miners.  And in the last segment, we follow a monkey’s fate after its master dies.

Each of these personalities is engrossing in his own way, taking the voice away from the dry narrator of the intro to tell their own stories (except the monkey, of course).  Although much of the action is quite plainly staged (including one or two not-very-good performances) it still is an honest and revealing look at different aspects of Indian culture.  There is a surprising amount of thematic breadth for a relatively brief film, touching on the uneasy balance of man of nature from multiple perspectives, industrialization, romance, relationships, pride of work.  It accomplishes all this while not seeming unfocused, and achieves lyrical introspection without flowery language.  Some characters are endearing, others are more flawed… all feel genuine and should be relatable to any audience.

There is a lot of beauty and truth in this simple, understated film.  It is not especially informative as a documentary, but I don’t think it’s trying to be nor does it need to be.  It’s thoughtful and often lovely.  A nice surprise, one of the few Rossellinis I would gladly watch again.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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