The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray)
I had a medical procedure this week, so there was going to be some bedrest time. I decided to use that time to watch the Apu Trilogy, with my daughter and my wife popping in to watch every once in a while. Watching all three together was a powerful experience.
Warning, spoilers ahead.
Pather Pachalli (Song of the Little Road, 1955)
Since "path" in Bengali means... "path", perhaps it should be the English translation suggested by some, "Lament of the Path".
In the first story of Apu, it isn't so much about Apu, as his sister and mother. There is much poverty and consternation, but also some joy and much hope. Until the end. In the end, all hope is crushed. Was it fate, or lack of assistance, or the irrational hope of the father? We aren't told, but there are plenty of fingers to point all around.
Cinematography-- Kind of dark, not very clear. Just like a film that was a low budget first film. But the talent is there and the photography has so much beauty to capture. Still, whose perspective is this being viewed by? Sometimes it is clearly an omniscient narrator, but it is so often close and personal as if we were standing in the house or in the village. I'm not sure how different that is, but the point of view felt unique, I'm just not sure why.
Themes-- Fate and hope and family and community. What really stands out is that community isn't ready to stand with our impoverished family until it is too late and their fate has been sealed. Perhaps it is failed community?
Characters-- Brilliant depiction of characters. Always optimistic father with plans to make things right. Always pessimistic mother who works hard every hour for her kids. Impish, kind of lazy Durga, little thief and caring sister-- she's the true star of this film.
Epic-- This episode in the trilogy is the opposite of epic. It takes place in one village, and we only see a couple houses. The number of people we experience are limited. This is a small film about unimportant people. And yet these people are found throughout the world. i know these folks in Portland. They are a type of poor people throughout the world, as well as those who carelessly judge and loyally support them.
Tone-- Although the tone should be somber, to see the destruction of this family and their hopes, it is not. Frankly, for most of it, it is lighthearted and even playful. While the small issues could become disasters, everything turns out okay... until it doesn't. We trust that the father's hard work will pay off, until it is too late. So the end lands like a dead weight on my chest, in apposition to the rest of the film.
Influenced-- This film made Satyajit Ray an important name in cinema, but his following films established his worthy reputation. PP helped establish a new socially conscious cinema in India, including the film Pyassa.
This is my second time of watching PP, re-watching because I wanted to see it in the Criterion Collection, along with the other two films in the trilogy at once. Now I cannot stop thinking about them. More about the trilogy below.
Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956)
After seeing Apu's background in his village, we get to spend more time with the character as he grows older in this film. It is easy to split this film into two parts, the first when his family move to Berenasi (modern Varanasi), where his father successfully works as a priest until he dies of pneumonia. Apu's mother is successful as a servant, and when the family she works for moves to Bengal, she moves her and Apu with them. Apu tries his father's trade, but he takes no joy in it. But he does take joy in school. In the second part, we see him years later when he receives a scholarship to attend higher education in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and to work as a printer's assistant. His separation from his mother causes her to pine and long for her son, and eventually her depression takes its toll and during an illness she dies. Now Apu is truly alone.
Cinematography-- The same cinematographer, but the film is crisper and it isn't all full of shadows.
Themes-- Poverty means that for every stride forward, there is an equal loss. Even with a supportive community, when you lose your family you have nothing.
Characters-- The father is still a joy, for as long as he is around. To see the mother obtain a little hope is good, but eventually she loses everything in her dreadful loneliness. There are other side characters-- the supportive schoolmaster, the old man training Apu as a priest, but really they have a scene or two and they are gone.
Epic-- Clearly, this film and Pather P were intended to be joined together. They have many of the same themes of family and loss, this film begins immediately after the first. And the two together really are an epic of the deconstruction of a struggling, but joyful family. The series could end right here, feeling that we have come to the conclusion of the matter. Yes, we have an educated writer, but forever alone.
Tone-- The tone at the beginning is very much in accord with PP-- struggle with hope. But once the father dies, there is a deadness to the proceedings. Yes, hope endures, but it is a lonely hope, as if Apu must go his own way and it is destined for his mothers pessimism to drive her into her grave. We see the change of tone with the loss of each family member, until there is nothing left but Apu, and he is an empty shell without the love of his family to sustain him.
Influenced-- I don't think that this film has much of an influence apart from the other two films in the set. But it is a unique drama, which is a coming of age film accompanied by such terrible circumstances. Perhaps we can see some influence in the 400 Blows. But this film established Ray as not just a flash-in-the-pan director, but a major talent.
One of the great joys I had in this film is seeing Bengal, both the village life and Calcutta, which I experienced in 1985 (which is as far from the present day as that year was from Ray's trilogy). I lived in a Bengali village for a few months and much was the same, including the nearness of the train, which would disturb the village. Calcutta is distinctive and when I saw Apu walking through the streets and arriving at Howrah station, I recognized them immediately. The shops, the architecture, the list of places to visit were all familiar.
I must admit, though, were there not a third part of this trilogy, I would have a hard time re-watching this first pair. We are with Apu in being stripped of people we love. And while Apu himself is a marvelous character and the coming of age story is wonderful, it is all so difficult to endure.
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)
Months after his mother's death, Apu has lost his scholarship and is threatened with losing his apartment (what happened to his job?). His schoolmate and friend Pulu finds him and convinces him to go to a wedding in a village. Through a strange circumstance, Apu ends up marrying the bride himself (in a series of circumstances worthy of the finest of Bollywood productions-- all we need is a few songs). He is nervous because she is from a well-off family and he is so poor, but they end up happy-- actually it is an ideal marriage and they learn to get by. She goes home to give birth to their first child, while Apu must stay in the city to work, and a letter he sends her is read by him over and over. Then he receives word that she died in childbirth. He is devastated, quits the city and wanders the countryside from job to job, sending money to his child whom he has not seen. Then Pulu seeks him out again and tells him that he needs to go back and care for his child. Apu goes to the village, convinced that he cannot help his unruly son. He is a horrible disciplinarian, but he learns to befriend his son and they go off in their new life together in Calcutta.
Cinematography-- Brilliant. The black and white is beautiful, and everyone's face is gorgeous, everyone shines.
Themes-- Again, the importance of family, and building one's family on one's own. Still a struggle with poverty, but it doesn't play as much of a role, poverty is a circumstance that can be overcome, not a deadly fate. However, fate plays his hand again and the very family he thought he had was destroyed. But there is still the small ray of hope that shines at the end.
Characters-- Aparna is an equal power in this trilogy to Apu's father. Although she is tough and shy (at first), she is a bright light, a power of joy and balance. I honestly thought that she would be the savior of this trilogy, and she is the one to show how family can be built from scratch, through hard work and discipline and humor and life.
Epic-- Here I am at the end of a single story, and I can no longer say that there are any small films here. As a unit, this is a powerful force, not just about a family, but about all families, with the best of members, with the worst of circumstances. After spending 5 1/2 hours with Apu's community, it truly is an epic masterpiece.
Tone-- The greatest of joys in the first half, which ended hard with a sharp guillotine blade. I have to say, I was devastated alone with Apu. Aparna was not a MPDG, but the new life of the story, the one to make all hopes come true, the new part of Apu. When she was gone, Apu couldn't just take the lessons and move on, rather his life was over. And the film could have ended right there to give a right, proper, despairing end to the trilogy. But Ray couldn't leave us without that hope. And slowly, building to the final scene, the dim light grows. This whole trilogy is a masterpiece of tone, playing me like a fiddle.
Influenced-- Same as above.
At this point in my exploration of great films I am just discovering, I realize that I have a huge gap in neorealism. I had no idea just how influential this movement was, or how widespread. I thought it was primarily located in Italy, and then influencing a film here or there, even to this day. But I realize now that many great filmmakers dabbled or dived into neorealism throughout the world and thus created some of their great works.
When I see in a film themes of poverty, struggle and failure, a slow, thoughtful pace, and disaster, I have to consider whether the film is neorealist or influenced by the movement. And that brings me to the Apu Trilogy. I'd say that it was neo-realist, at least the first two films. We see the struggle of a family trying to get ahead, but finding the way forward almost impossible, and by the end of the first two films there is no family left, only Apu. At the same time, despite all of the negative struggle and outcome, there is joy and hope throughout. That tone is distinct from other neorealist films I've seen. It is strangely reminiscent of Grave of the Fireflies, in which we can see the horrendous, unacceptable outcome, it is placed before us again and again, but the characters live daily with the hope that their struggle will surely end in survival, and the everyday play that makes life living. The Apu Trilogy does the same. Apu's father is constantly hopeful and cheerful. His play with his sister is sincerely happy, without regard to the disaster their mother lingers on. The joy of the first half of Apur Sansar is riveting and unforgettable. I think this presentation of poverty is actually more realistic than most neorealism films I've seen. Human life is intended to be experienced with some joy and hope. Without them, despair easily sets in, and the lack of energy that depression brings. Because of this unique tone, the Apu Trilogy successfully continues for 5 1/2 hours, keeping us both entertained and hopeful. It is a tough watch, all together. The tragedy in the third film was almost unendurable. But we could follow Apu through it, because of the struggle he already went through. We didn't know how it would end, we couldn't until the final moment, but such an epic rollercoaster of emotion and the highest and lowest points of life kept us going. Wow, what a ride.
4.5/5 for the whole trilogy