Starring: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Subir Banerjee, Chunibala Devi
For cinephiles, "The Apu Trilogy" by Satyajit Ray is something of a legend. The most famous films from an under-recognized legend (many put Ray among the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa) were for a long time difficult to find in the US. The original negatives were burned in a fire, and it was only due to the combined efforts of a number of film organizations including Criterion and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (for those of you who don't know, they hand out the Oscars) that the films were restored and able to be released. Naturally, having heard about them through James Berardinelli's reviews, I snapped up a copy as soon as I could. I have to say, though, I was disappointed with the first installment.
There's not much of a plot to "Pather Panchali." It's more of a slice-of-life drama about a family in India circa the 1950's. Money is hard to come by and debts are high. Father Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) leaves to find work while mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) stays home to look after her children Durga (Gupta) and Apu (Banerjee), and care for her ailing aunt (Devi).
It would be a misnomer to call "Pather Panchali" pretentious. There are many scenes that work, and the film always looks great. No one talks in a monotone, and there aren't unending pauses between each line of dialogue. It's certainly not as proudly high-brow as something like "Tokyo Story." But getting from beginning to end takes effort.
Legend has it that the director had never directed a scene, the cinematographer had never photographed one and none of the child actors had ever been screen tested. If that is the case, than it doesn't show. This is a well-made film by someone who knows what he is doing. The performances are all natural and many of their interactions (such as when Harihar and Sarbojaya discuss their financial distress or when Durga and Apu fight over some tin foil) that ring true.
"Pather Panchali" isn't for everyone. It remains hard to find (Netflix only has the second film, "Aparajito," available for rent, although I suspect that will soon change), and it's only available to buy as a trilogy from Criterion (with its usual high price). So for cinephiles who are interested, I say it's worth it. But for those of you who are looking for a Friday night movie, this isn't a good choice.