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The Stranger (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on January 21, 2014

Anila Bose (Mamata Shankar) has received a startling telegram.  The author claims to be her uncle Manomohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt), who hasn’t been seen for 35 years and hasn’t been heard from for over 20.  He’s been travelling all over the world and now wants to come home and visit his niece.  Anila’s husband Sudhindra (Dipankar Dey) is immediately suspicious.  He sets out to determine if the stranger is who he says he is… and whether he has any ulterior motives.  He even enlists his attorney friend Prithwish (Dhritiman Chatterjee) to grill him.  But the enigmatic Manomohan seems less interested in proving his identity than in sharing his thoughts about society.

It’s been 10 years since I first saw this movie.  As with An Enemy of the People, but even more so, my opinion of it has improved on the second viewing.  And again, part of this is because it looks so much better with a restored print on DVD.  Unlike Ray’s previous two films — Enemy and The Branches of the Tree — this has real cinematic flourish to it.  The sets are no longer confining and cheap.  The color palette is rich and vivid.  Shots are not static, the camera moves with grace and picks out interesting details.  The climax involves a spellbinding aboriginal dance that would have made Herzog proud.  It’s a restrained aesthetic, but one that often provides splendid beauty.

And the film is certainly more sophisticated than “an after-school special”, as I initially charged.  It’s a very talky movie, without much in the way of drama.  But the conversations are consistently compelling.  Manomohan rails against what others call “civilization”, which despite its advances still consists of barbarisms like the caste system and the atomic bomb.  He yearns to be a savage, but lamentably cannot entirely remove himself from the “civilization” that was ingrained in him since birth.  He is obviously a mouthpiece for Ray himself, sharing his humanist view of the world.  And perhaps one of the film’s flaws is that Ray gives the character no serious opposition.  Prithwish presents some easy arguments for him to knock down before devolving into insults and accusations out of frustration.

And this leads to the movie’s other major flaw: Manomohan is too perfect.  Ray and Kurosawa were friends and mutual admirers.  Kurosawa often utilized the preternaturally wise elder with unorthodox views.  Sometimes a film succeeded despite this (Red Beard) and sometimes it was a severe stumbling block (Dersu Uzala, Madadayo).  Ray typically avoided this type of character, but here in his final film, he surfaces.  This guy has an answer for everything, is always right, and only the most pig-headed of those around him don’t feel humbled by his grace and wisdom.  An ending that is otherwise quite touching is punctuated by an act of generosity that once more shows what a swell, selfless dude Manomohan is.  It’s too pat.  Arati in The Big City (I’m trying to get used to using the English title) could also be accused of being too perfect, but at least she isn’t showering everyone with golden nuggets of wisdom.

Nonetheless, Dutt’s performance makes the character very warm and likable.  You want to root for him, even though the film makes it all too easy to do so.  Ray speaks to the audience through him, both calling out the injustices of the world and rejoicing in its rich complexities.  The movie also has some fine humor in it.  Robi Ghosh, a comic actor Ray unfortunately often used for shameless mugging, gives one of his best, most endearing performances in a small role.  Shankar shines here, much more so than her smaller part in Enemy.  Even Dhritiman Chatterjee, again in a role that’s too villainous, is compelling.  The whole thing is just very watchable, and I’m pleased to have returned to it with a greater appreciation.  It’s not one of Ray’s best, but it’s in the upper half of his filmography.

I used to say that Bergman was my favorite director.  In recent years, I’ve been calling it a tie between Bergman and Ray.  If Ray’s “lesser” films keep getting better with repeat viewings like this, Satyajit may take the lead over Ingmar.  Rating: Very Good (84)

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