Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ray- Maybe the Greatest Filmmaker, Ever

Our hero Apu, a young man who lives in poverty and has never been in a relationship, is unexpectedly married to Aparna, a woman he barely knows. Her betrothed has gone mad, and she will be cursed unless she is married by day's end. Apu gallantly volunteers his hand. The sequence is humorous, tender, as elemental as folklore, and like everything else in Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu, absurdly beautiful. Every scene is blinking with dewy eyes at the possibilities of its environment. Apu stretches on his porch in a drenching monsoon, and we see distant trees bowing in the downpour, so lovely in monochrome. Or when he and his new wife later emerge from a car, and Ray's camera, instead of paying attention to them, fancies a little bird that hops in a corner of the frame, as though gently welcomed to live there.

When I was in college, I talked to a professor after seeing Pather Panchali, and we wondered: how does he do it? How can these effortless and even accidental details mean so much in a Ray film? I feel that after last night, when Jamie and I trekked through this cold Boston rain to see the Apu trilogy's last chapter, I know the answer a little better: these moments are beautiful because we can sense that they're an extension of Ray himself, and the "elaborate serenity," as Bosley Crowther described it, with which he unhurriedly honored everything he filmed.

One morning soon after the wedding, Aparna wakes up before Apu and busies herself with chores. As Apu gradually gains consciousness, he finds one of her hairpins in the bed, and gazes at it with delight. It is a foreign object in his world, and it is wonderful. I can't help imagining what the characters are thinking in these quiet scenes. Could this be the moment that he falls in love with Aparna? Perhaps only half of what's dancing in my head was actually intended by Ray; he is always taking us somewhere, but at some point he stops telling us what's going on and lets us imagine. It's a sign of how invested I am in the story that I'm so keen to bring my own interpretation to these moments.

I'm not sure why, but I was expecting the film to end without much resolution, much the same way that Pather Panchali leaves its characters staggering in the uncertain aftermath of tragedy. Yet it finds an ending that finishes off the narrative in a satisfying and not overly-convenient way, and almost makes this feel like one of Di Sica's realist parables- The Bicycle Thief, or Umberto D- the kind of film narrative that reaches out to everyone, with something universal to say.

We also recently saw La Doppia Ora (The Double Hour), a new thriller which I highly recommend. One of my favorite things at the movies is a genre film that actually works. Giuseppe Capotondi shows us one way of achieving this: if you're sincere enough, the conventions you use can actually seem fresh. (Matchstick Men is another excellent example of this.) As a mystery, this film plays its hand daringly, pulling a series of rugs out from under us, each time risking our investment in the story. Yet I never felt manipulated, exactly. A bad plot twist is one that negates everything you've been led to believe. You might say the plot twists in this film update and modify what you already know but don't send you all the way back to square one.

I was too tired to really focus on Fists In the Pocket, considered a landmark of '60s Italian film, and I don't think I was in the mood for it anyway, but that's okay, it'll always be there when I'm ready for it. It had the kind of broad performances that get your attention and are obviously great (as opposed to the understated Soumitra Chatterjee in World of Apu), and I loved the score by Morricone.

Finally, I recommend The Last Laugh, a silent film about the decline of a lonely old man. I thought the ending was poorly paced and too obvious; the darkness of the man's decline, which takes us through the first two acts, is far more interesting. The acting is fascinating, too- they look like puppets on a stage.