pather panchali (1955)
I may just as well refer to this as a review of Apu Part 1, and it may have been referred to as such were it released in a different era. It's nearly impossible to perceive any of the films in Satyajit Ray's trilogy as separate from one another, as their message and experience plays so well as a whole; but there was a time when Pather Panchali existed, and enjoyed all of its accolades, as a singular film. In short, Pather Panchali crosses into the distinction of a work of genius, films that craft this mark of quality are like houses of mirrors, everywhere you turn you see the same subject from myriad angles and abstractions. Film can be a fun house and the unlimited angles with which we see the affirmation of life, society and death within Satyajit Ray's debut feature can barely be measured. On the surface, and to a Western audience especially, it's somehow a glimpse into a life of poverty, a pathetic bit of existence far removed from health, wealth and happiness meant to incite pity. The pitiful are anyone who can view Ray's films and not see his universality. The film has little to do with poverty, you could dress it up as a costume drama about the aristocracy of some European nation and get the same results. Pather Panchali, and the Apu Trilogy as a whole, provides one of the most life-affirming journeys in all of cinema. We see birth, death, struggle and victory; we see the young learning to be like the old, we see the old remembering what it was to be young, we see those in the midst of their journey through existence lost, confused and alone. How does life make a certain kind of sense to the old and to the young simultaneously that eludes those of middle age? How do the young slowly slip away into that spell of human society, perhaps a hormonal cloud that arrives at puberty and departs at menopause? Ray's film is about the dreams of youth and the ties that bind human individuals together in a method that few others' films have been able to master in their examination; Ray shows us life as a bittersweet continuum and not as a narrative.
Few films are able to reject the narrative structure and beats like Pather Panchali, the beauty and tragedy simply intermix until we've emerged from the film with a sense of lifespan as we've never known it. We see all aspects; an old life that ends at an inopportune time, a young life cut tragically short, and all those lives in between that shape one another. Always, the members of the community are at each other's throats, ready with a quick quip to cut their rival families down, always demonstrably cold when backed into a corner. When it's family against family, they are loyal to one another beyond a doubt. When the rival clan is out of sight, they squabble amongst themselves, passing blame around as to why they're not, on the whole, better off. Simultaneously, from the same individuals can flow a great compassion and empathy, the same individuals will show their full range throughout this film filled with human portraits, not characters, which is an important distinction about Ray's trilogy. The bounds of the Earth are shown to be as small as the community will make them. What is it to grow up in a tiny village in the middle of a jungle? Apu's family seems to live in ruins, yet it is their proud old family home. Slowly, we grow with them from a young girl who hides in the trees and watches as her mother passes to an infant Apu being born, to the children growing together, transgressing through tests and rites of passage. To be in such isolation, each day seeing the same things, learning about the world around you. Pather Panchali's most memorable moment, and greatest observation about what it is to 'grow up' comes in the form of the train. Not far from the home, the train lumbers past, its whistle cutting through the sounds of the night. Ray crafts a moment like no other; that moment in our lives, insignificant at the time, when we become aware of something and will be forever changed. Apu sits with his family, one of the few moments of calm bliss we observe for them, and in an instant first becomes aware of the train's sound in the night, it's been there all his life and yet suddenly it is of interest. It becomes a fascination that embodies one of humanity's most near and dear concepts: 'Someday'. "Someday we will go and see the train". That someday of course arrives during a moment of feuding between brother and sister, completely unplanned and without warning, someday arrives and Apu finally sees with his own eyes what he must have imagined a thousand times.
So much about Ray's debut echoes throughout our lives, it becomes a weighty experience to view our follies laid in front of us. A father who believes his family will be there, intact, waiting for him when he returns, unaware that life waits for nothing, it will continue. Pather Panchali's only flaws come in the form of missteps from an inexperienced filmmaker, some out of step moments, an overall pace that doesn't take us through the standard rise and fall of action as we're accustomed. It is to the film's benefit that it stitches together in this way. In Ray's volatile universe and the life that we see Apu and his family lead, it is the only way to fully communicate what the life we lead is in many ways. Life comes and goes and changes and grows regardless of what we say do and think, sometimes all we can do is accept it and adapt to it. This microcosm of simple in its presentation and has a weight which continues to make itself known on further introspection of the material. Ray's debut is an incredible feat to say the least.