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Pather Panchali (February 20/04)

The camerawork isn't perfect and the acting is occasionally mediocre, but Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali is nevertheless a compelling and surprisingly moving tale of a poor family trying to get by. Though Ray made his debut with this movie, his ability behind the camera is unmistakable.

Ray, who also wrote the script, funded the majority of Pather Panchali with his own money and cast his family and friends in pivotal roles. Set in a Bengali village, this uncomplicated story revolves around a family of four - mom Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), dad Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee), daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta), and son Apu (Subir Bannerjee). Harihar is a struggling poet/playwright who's barely making ends meet by working odd jobs, while Sarbojaya has her hands full keeping their household running smoothly. Durga and Apu spend the majority of their time playing, though Durga's penchant for petty theft causes friction among their neighbors.

Pather Panchali moves at an incredibly slow pace, but the film never becomes boring - although Ray might've been well advised to cut down the running time (at over two hours, there are a number of sequences that go on longer than necessary). Still, the simplicity with which Ray tells this tale gives it a feeling of universality; by stripping away superfluous elements, we come to really care about this family. It's interesting that the film is known as the first part of Ray's Apu trilogy, as Apu's participation in the story is minimal. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Sarbojaya and Durga, which is - as one might expect - ridden with conflict.

It's clear that Sarbojaya loves her daughter, but intensely disapproves of her rebellious ways. Durga wants to do her own things, while Sarbojaya is more interested in preparing her for a life of domesticity. Ray does a fantastic job of turning these two characters into more than just stereotypes, to the extent that their relationship remains intriguing even when both women are behaving stubbornly. Periphery characters, such as a mean and gossipy lady from the village, are surprisingly well developed and avoid the danger of becoming caricatures.

Ray proves to be a natural filmmaker, and his use of black and white photography (along with cinematographer Subrata Mitra) is often incredibly effective. Ravi Shankar's score perfectly accompanies Ray's images, turning simple shots of dirty ponds and kittens playing into moments of high art. It's in the pacing that the movie finally fails, as Ray's love for his material seems to have prevented him from administering some much-needed editorial adjustments. Still, it's a small complaint for a film that is otherwise so impressive.

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