The Complete Satyajit Ray:
Cinema From the Inner Eye
At the Freer Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, the National Geographic Society, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts March 1 to April 28
His first film was the simple, naturalistic tale of a poor, dark-haired boy who has begun to discover the ways of the world. In the ’40s, such a movie would probably have been Italian; in the ’90s, almost certainly Iranian. In the ’50s, however, the cinematic style known as neorealism belonged to India, which is to say to one man: Satyajit Ray.
Ray, whose entire 34-film output will be shown over the next two months at five local institutions (a sixth, the National Museum of Natural History, will screen Shyam Benegal’s documentary Satyajit Ray April 27), single-handedly brought neorealism’s candor and integrity to India, or at least to his corner of it: the state of West Bengal, whose capital is Calcutta. In the process, he also introduced a world virtually unknown to Western audiences. Ray’s 1955 debut, Pather Panchali, features a score by sitarist Ravi Shankar, then unknown in the West. The director, who adapted many of his films from novels, was also one of the first people to call international attention to the British-influenced Indian literature that subsequently yielded such lit-prize stars as Salman Rushdie. And in addition to writing his own scripts, Ray composed the scores to many of his films, which often show the integral role of music in Indian culture.
Wherever they arose, cinematic neorealists faced formidable odds. In Italy, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica—whose The Bicycle Thief was the specific inspiration for Pather Panchali—began making movies in the rubble of World War II. In Iran, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf gingerly skirted the Islamic Revolution’s censors. Ray, too, was subject to censorship, but he faced an even more substantial foe: India had (and continues to have) one of the world’s largest film industries. So-called Bollywood movies—made in Bombay, on the other side of the country from Calcutta—are known for being flamboyant, contrived, and anything but subtle. Pather Panchali was like nothing most Indian moviegoers had ever seen. It wasn’t even in Hindi, Bollywood’s principal language, but in Ray’s native tongue, Bengali.
Based on an autobiographical novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, Pather Panchali became the first part of a trilogy that also includes Aparajito and The World of Apu, which followed its hero’s progress to manhood. These movies (March 8, 9, 10, 15, 22, and 30 at the National Gallery of Art) have lost none of their power and grace—or, for that matter, their relevance. (Mexican-American director Gregory Nava, who will join Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal and others to discuss Ray’s work at the Freer Gallery of Art April 26, borrowed the plot of The World of Apu for his 1994 drama, My Family.)
Unlike Apu, Ray was not the product of an impoverished rural childhood. Instead, he came from Calcutta’s upper-caste—and sometimes overextended—aristocracy. The director sold much of his (and his wife’s) fortune to make Pather Panchali, so it’s unsurprising that the financially embarrassed gentleman enthusiast is a recurring type in Ray’s work. In his fourth film, The Music Room (March 1 at the Freer Gallery), a feudal landlord courts bankruptcy to continue staging the private concerts that are his passion. In The Lonely Wife (April 21 at the Freer Gallery), an upscale 19th-century reformer risks both his inheritance and his spouse’s affection in his obsession with publishing a liberal newspaper that few read (or even can read—it’s in English).
Like many Ray characters, the protagonists of The Music Room and The Lonely Wife are foolish. So is the rich feudal landlord of Devi (April 3 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts), who profoundly disrupts his family when he becomes convinced that his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of the fierce goddess Kali. Even more deluded are the two wealthy layabouts of The Chess Players (April 12 at the National Gallery), who obliviously play their favorite game as Britain’s East India Company annexes the north Indian kingdom where they live. Such men are often destructive, but they’re not evil; sometimes, in fact, they’re entirely well-meaning. This touch reflects the humanism of Jean Renoir, Ray’s other great cinematic influence; the aspiring filmmaker observed carefully when Renoir shot 1951’s The River in Bengal.
Ray’s principal literary inspiration was Bengali novelist Rabindranath Tagore, whose writings are the source of such films as The Lonely Wife, Two Daughters (April 7 at the Freer Gallery), and The Home and the World (April 24 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts). The director’s movies have also been compared to the work of Henry James, Anton Chekhov, and other writers who closely examined upscale domestic existence, with particular interest in the lives of women in various types of gilded cages. In India, the wives of wealthy men traditionally lived in purdah, a sort of pampered domestic imprisonment; although set in different eras, The Lonely Wife and The Big City (March 31 and April 5 at the National Gallery) are both about women who, though ensnared by custom, are more suited to the real world than their husbands. Ray’s last great film, 1984’s The Home and the World, is the tale of a liberal husband who persuades his wife to leave purdah, only to lose her to a revolutionary anti-British firebrand whose politics are charismatic but rash.
Ray had a heart attack while making The Home and the World, which was completed by his son Sandip Ray. The director made only a few more films before his 1992 death, including a version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (April 26 at the National Gallery) that can be recommended only to completists. Yet his final film, The Stranger (April 28 at the Freer Gallery), is thematically satisfying, if cinematically unexciting. When the title character critiques “civilization,” apparently expressing the director’s viewpoint, it’s a fitting coda to Ray’s body of work. Few filmmakers have better explored the tension between the home and the world.
The last of this season’s dead-child movies to arrive in Washington, The Son’s Room is also the best. Italian writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti’s first drama—although that’s not exactly what it is—forgoes both the genre conventions of Lantana and the glib resolution of Monster’s Ball. Although certainly not the most austere of cinematic meditations on loss—compared with, say, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Maborosi, it’s practically a romp—Moretti’s film is far quieter than the typical Hollywood weepie. That doesn’t prevent it, however, from ending on a powerfully moving note.
As usual in his films, Moretti plays a character something like himself. Although this time he’s a small-town psychiatrist, Giovanni, he’s still a film buff with a dry, slightly exasperated wit. Giovanni is outfitted with an almost too attractive family, including lovely wife Paola (Laura Morante) and affable teenage offspring Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and Irene (Jasmine Trinca). As if to demonstrate that not everything is perfect in this domestic paradise, the film’s first phone call is from Andrea’s school, informing Giovanni and Paola that the boy has allegedly stolen a fossil. Giovanni, whose limited ability to affect his patients provides a muted satirical refrain, rushes into action to protect Andrea’s reputation.
Giovanni has other worries about Andrea and Irene, whose boyfriend indiscreetly talks about smoking pot within earshot of her parents. Such concerns evaporate, however, when a series of foreshadowings leads to the main event: the news that Andrea has died in a diving accident. The film’s faintly mystical tone, introduced by a parade of Hare Krishnas Giovanni encounters while jogging, also encompasses an uncanny filial empathy: When her father comes to interrupt her basketball game with news of Andrea’s death, Irene freezes at the unexpected sight of him.
At home and at work, Giovanni, too, goes into a sort of suspended animation, interrupted by the occasional outburst of tears or anger. Although Paola spends much time weeping in the bedroom, the movie’s loudest noise is the whine of the electric screwdriver that affixes the lid of Andrea’s coffin—a symbol of both profound loss and the banality of customary arrangements. (Equally grating but less expressive is Nicola Piovani’s jaunty score, the film’s weakest link.) Irene tries to talk to her parents, but both are closed up. For the three survivors, religion, work, and even basketball offer little solace. Irene is suspended from the team for starting a fight, and Giovanni tells his patients that he’s giving up his practice.
The first ray of light to penetrate this gloom is a letter from Arianna (Sofia Vigliar), who identifies herself as Andrea’s girlfriend. Arianna met Andrea on a camping trip, knew him for only a few days, and is unaware that he’s dead. Paola seizes on the missive, however, and insists that she must meet Arianna. The girl says she’d rather not but then shows up unexpectedly. She’s on a hitchhiking excursion with a friend, and after the family has been rejuvenated by Arianna’s visit, they give the hitchhikers a ride to the highway. Once they start driving, they just can’t stop.
The Son’s Room won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but reaction elsewhere has been mixed. Some have even accused Moretti of tear-jerking, although the film’s tone is hushed and unassertive and the final scene bids not for sentiment but transcendence. It’s fitting that the movie’s theme song, “By This River,” is sung by Brian Eno, ’70s art-rock’s embodiment of the less-is-more aesthetic. Moretti’s films are always stuffed with details of Italian everyday life, but The Son’s Room reaches an acceptance of transience that is almost Asian. CP