Pather Panchali opens at E Street Cinema today, and while it is not a new release in a traditional sense, film fans everywhere should celebrate its return to the big screen. Directed by Satyajit Ray, the first film of The Apu Triology is a masterpiece, with vivid performances from its inexperienced cast. But for all its accolades, a disastrous accident made it impossible to view the film until quite recently. Here’s the Criterion Collection explains their restoration process:
In 1993, the original negatives of Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy were burned in a massive nitrate fire at a laboratory in London. Even though there were no technologies available at the time capable of fully restoring such badly damaged film elements, the Academy Film Archive held on to them. And now times have changed… The films were painstakingly rescued and restored by the Criterion Collection and the L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy.
The new 4K print of The Apu Trilogy is vivid and simple, yet the changes are unobtrusive so that we can fall into the spell of Apu and his family.
Subir Banerjee plays Apu, a cute wide-eyed child who lives with his family in poverty. They have few possessions, save shelter and scraps of clothing, so they treat any luxury like a talisman, or a curse. Apu is a curious boy, indifferent to school, and he’s drawn to anything that resembles an escape from the meager hut where he lives. In the film’s most famous sequence, Apu and his older sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta) chase a locomotive as it churns through a nearby field. The power of the imagery is deepened because, up until that point, their poverty is timeless.
In terms of plot, Pather Panchali is episodic and revolves around minor betrayals. Apu and his family are so poor that giving into temptation is easy: someone is always stealing something, and Apu’s mother (Karuna Bannerjee) has little patience for her enfeebled aunt (Chunibala Devi) because she veers between entitlement and complaining. There is a glimmer of hope from Apu’s father (Kanu Banerjee), although that arc ends with the brutalization realization that the hierarchy of needs can devastate people when they lack any infrastructure or community. Still, the film is too lively and observant to wallow in misery, however, and Ray adds compassion and warmth wherever he can. There’s also an attention to detail, including quite hints at the passage of time: the film opens with Durga tending to small kittens, and by the film’s end the cats are a little bigger.
Like a modern movie-goer who watches Citizen Kane for the first time, a lot of Pather Panchali comes off as unremarkable. Ironically, that’s a testament to Ray’s craft and influence. Ray borrowed a lot of techniques from the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, creating an intuitive film grammar so that the crisp editing/imagery leads to moments of genuine emotional power (the score by Ravi Shankar adds depth without being obvious about it). What’s more important, however, is how the film was the modern West’s first real exposure to how people live in India (told in their own words, no less).
Some filmmakers and critics recoiled at the realism – Truffaut famously dismissed the film with, “I don’t want to see a movie where peasants eat with their hands” – yet that unflinching realism is Ray’s greatest asset. Hunched over, toothless, and rail thin, Apu’s great aunt is the sort of grotesque, tragic figure we might recoil when we see (throughout her film, her niece is certainly sick of her). Ray has the empathy to regard and listen to the aunt, both in close-ups and medium shots, so she’s more than just a caricature for pity. Pather Panchali does find nobility in its characters, and not because of their poverty: it sees their problems with clear-eyed frustration, and finds humanity on the other side. The restoration of the Apu trilogy is a testament to how patience and technology can literally save history, and even with modern eyes, the film is good enough to warrant a brief, quiet reprieve from summer blockbusters that aren’t going anywhere.