Pather Panchali (1955)
Directed by Satyajit Ray

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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In rural Bengal, a poor Brahmin family struggles to survive. The father finds work keeping the local landlord's accounts but always dreams of more, thinking good luck is sure to come his way. The mother complains and sorrows for her sad lot but does all she can to care for and protect her two children, her daughter Durga and her son Apu. Hoping to better their lives, the father sets out from his home to search for employment elsewhere, but, when his wife and children are left to try to survive on their own, their situation worsens dramatically.

Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali is a beautiful and affecting film. The director has crafted such a rich and enticing vision that he is able to draw the viewer into the lives of his protagonists and engage him with them so that he feels both their joys and their sorrows.

The director's ability to immerse the viewer in his fictional world is greatly facilitated by his consistently well realized characters. Durga, in particular, is a delight. She is a mischievous, sprightly girl who is absolutely filled with life. The viewer is bound to be entranced not only by her sheer love of the world but even by her numerous imperfections. In fact, she is made especially enchanting because she is such an ordinary and flawed human being. She steals from the neighbors. She is angered by and hits Apu. She manipulates him and others to get what she wants. She is very much like most other children.

Apu himself is, perhaps, the movie's least engaging personality. Although Ray would tell more of his tale in two later films, the viewer is not really involved with the character in Pather Panchali. Like most young children, Apu is more of an observer of the events of the world than a participant in them. As is the case with Durga, however, Apu's ordinariness does pull us into his world. As a consequence, while, like him, we remain merely observers, we are also deeply affected by what we see.

Although I am not an admirer of extreme realism in cinema and find that such an approach, by attempting to fool the viewer into believing that fictional persons are real so that he can identify with them, creates, instead, an unstable emotional reaction that is difficult to sustain, Ray, somehow, manages to make such an approach work here. Largely thanks to the director's well realized characters, the viewer is readily able to enter into the film's world, with its bickering but caring neighbors, flawed individuals, and complex familial relations. We are shown the conflicts between a husband and wife, between a mother and her children, between two siblings, and also the real love each of these persons has for the others. The director has given each of them a vibrant life and has situated them in a frequently entrancing world. While the movie is simple, even pedestrian visually, its austerity is so infused with a real appreciation of the world in which we live that the viewer is consistently fascinated by the images with which he is presented. Even Ray's use of non-professional actors is a success, and virtually every one of the performances in the movie is an absolute delight.

While frequently fascinating and affecting, Pather Panchali is, however, far from perfect. There are times when Ray does give in to histrionics, as in his depiction of the father's reaction to a particular tragedy that comes near the movie's conclusion. Elsewhere, even the quality of the actual film used to shoot the movie deteriorates to the point where it really is a distraction, and, in a number of instances, the director is painfully heavy-handed in his efforts to convey some point or another. Such moments, fortunately, are fairly rare and do not greatly detract from the movie's overall quality.

Pather Panchali is overall a delightful film that allows the viewer to feel the simple but deep emotions of everyday life, its joys, its bitterness, its anger, its resentment, and its sorrows.

Review by Keith Allen

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