Pather Panchali (India, 1955)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When discussing "giants" of the non-English-speaking, international film world, four names leap immediately to mind: Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray. Of these men, Ray has received the least North American exposure, but, arguably, the most critical acclaim. Praise for the Indian director, who died in 1992 shortly after receiving a lifetime achievement Oscar, has been effusive from both film makers and critics. Vincent Canby, of the New York Times, once wrote that "an entire world is evoked" by each of Ray's films. The late Louis Malle called Ray's body of work "magical and completely unique." And James Ivory, the director of Howards End and The Remains of the Day, has said that, after watching a Ray movie, the viewer will feel "fulfilled, enriched, maybe wiser, and wanting more."

Indeed, it is Ivory, along with his partner, Ismail Merchant, who has made this screening of Pather Panchali, Ray's directorial debut, possible. With financial backing from Sony Pictures Classics, Merchant and Ivory have cleaned up, packaged, and released a series of Ray pictures for distribution in select United States theaters. Included in "The Masterworks of Satyajit Ray" is the complete Apu Trilogy, which is comprised of three of the director's early films: Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu. The movies, which exist on video but are not readily available, are worth searching out. Anyone who believes in the uplifting power of motion pictures will not be disappointed.

Pather Panchali, Ray's first foray into the film making world, was completed in 1955, and proceeded to win the top prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. It's a quiet, simple tale, centering on the life of a small family living in a rural village in Bengal. The father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee), is a priest and poet who cares more about his writing and spiritual welfare than obtaining wages he is owed. The mother, Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), worries that her husband's financial laxity will leave her without enough food for her two children, daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and son Apu (Chunibala Devi). Harihar's family often lives on the edge of poverty, coping with the unkind taunts of their neighbors, the burden of caring for an aging aunt (Chunibala Devi), and the terrible aftermath of a natural catastrophe.

Pather Panchali starts slowly, but builds inexorably towards a powerful climax as we come to know, and empathize with, the characters. Ray takes the time to create a meticulously believable world that draws the viewer in. There isn't a false note in the entire film -- not in the characterization, the dialogue, or the storyline. The emotions evoked by the events of Pather Panchali are honest and true, not the contrived byproducts of manipulative formulas. Ray makes us feel with the characters, not just for them.

Most of what transpires is shown through the eyes of either Sarbojaya or Durga, and, as a result, we identify most closely with these two. Harihar is absent for more than half of the movie, and, before the penultimate scene, Apu is a mere witness to events, rather than a participant. Until the closing moments, we don't get a sense of the young boy as a fully formed individual, since he's always in someone else's shadow.

With its often-poetic black-and-white images and heartfelt method of storytelling, Pather Panchali speaks intimately to each member of the audience. This tale, as crafted by Ray, touches the souls and minds of viewers, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers. The languorous pace, which initially seems detrimental, proves to be an asset -- Pather Panchali would not have been the same experience had material been cut. Each scene builds upon what has come before. This is the kind of motion picture that will stay with you for hours, or perhaps even days, after you've left the theater, and that's a rare characteristic for any movie.

Pather Panchali (India, 1955)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Bengali
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1