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Pather Panchali (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on December 5, 2015

I have been waiting for this for a decade. I first saw this movie 12 years ago, and was instantly won over, despite the wretched print that was available. It was my intro to Satyajit Ray, and I rapidly absorbed as much of his work as I could (I have now seen everything he ever directed, and he’s tied with Bergman as my favorite director). I watched the film again a couple of years later. It still held its incredible power, even when seen in such shabby condition. But there was word of a massive restoration being done on “The Apu Trilogy”, and that Criterion would eventually release it. So I held my breath. I told myself I wasn’t going to watch it again until I could see it in its restored glory. I passed up an opportunity to see it on the big screen — a decision I regret — but I knew it was coming to Blu-Ray.

And at last, it is here. And yes, it looks astonishing. Working from damaged source materials, there are still spots that are rough, but it’s a massive improvement over the muddy, battered, poorly-subtitled version I first saw. Ray’s poetic artistry — all the more impressive for being his first film — shines in this presentation, highlighting all those little things he wants to observe. The wave of the tall grass, the start of a rainstorm, the skin of a guava, the play of kittens.

But more than natural delights, Ray observes people. People going about the business of being human. Jealousies and suspicions among neighbors. The antics of child siblings… sometimes playful, sometimes bitter. A mother trying to motivate her naive dreamer of a husband. Or a husband who has naive dreams of writing for a living. Past glories, future hopes, daily struggles and whimsical diversions. Ray at his best takes all of life and puts it on his canvas, unadorned. Polished, perhaps, with a veneer of kindness, understanding and empathy. Satyajit Ray makes you love his characters so deeply, it’s almost magical. There is no guiding conflict driving the narrative foward. There isn’t a problem to be solved in a thrilling climax. It’s just spending time with people and seeing what makes human beings so endearing.

It is called “The Apu Trilogy” but that’s a misleading label. If the story of Pather Panchali is about anyone, it’s about Durga (wonderful performances at different ages by Runki Banerjee and Uma Das Gupta). She’s not a special little girl. She isn’t gifted with exceptional intelligence or a unique talent. She doesn’t spew witty dialogue, in fact she doesn’t even have all that many lines. She’s just an ordinary child. But you can feel everything she’s going through, her triumphs and joys and her disappointments and shames. You can feel her love for “Auntie” Indir, her protectiveness of Apu, her resentment towards her mother (who is perpetually stuck in the role of being the stern parent, while the father — when he’s actually around — always gets to be the nice guy). You don’t realize how close you feel to Durga until late in the film. Because even in his bluntest moments (like the mother talking about how she, too, once had dreams) Ray has a gentle touch, one that warmly invites you to stand with him and observe.

And oh man, I haven’t even mentioned Ravi Shankar’s amazing score. So good. Really looking forward to revisiting the other two films. It’s been far too long. Rating: Masterpiece (98)


4 Responses to “Pather Panchali (rewatch)”

  1. clydeumney said

    So, do you think this is your favorite of the three? It’s hard for me to pick a favorite, but there’s something just flawless about this one.

    • It’s the one in my top 100, so yes, I’d say it’s my favorite. But The World of Apu is a close second… and who knows where things will fall after I’ve revisited all three?

  2. […] 156. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) […]

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