Classic Movie Review: Pather Panchali (1955) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter P

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Pather Panchali
Release Date: 26 August 1955
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Government of West Bengal
Summary/Review:

Pather Panchali (translated, Song of the Little Road) is a story set in Bengal in the early 1900s.  It tells the story of a family’s slow descent into poverty over a period of a few years.  Much of the film is told from the point of view of the family’s youngest member, Apu (Subir Banerjee), a curious child.  His older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta) dotes on him and teases him in equal measure, and has taken to stealing things to supplement the family’s meager income. Their stern mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) is distressed by Durga’s thievery, her debts to their neighbors, and her husband’s directionless nature.  Their father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a priest who wants to be a writer and is perhaps too casual about bringing in money for his family, but also spends significant amounts of time traveling to earn money elsewhere.  The final member of the family is an aged aunt, Indir (Chunibala Devi), a mischievous old woman who the children adore but is an irritant to Sarbajaya.

This is the first feature film directed by Satyajit Ray, beginning a career as one of India’s most notable auteur directors.  It also the first of three films, followed by Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959), that tell the story of Apu’s life and are known as The Apu Trilogy.  The film is very crisp and has a silvertone quality that captures a lot of detail.  I’m reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s way of depicting the natural world overlapping the built world of humanity.  The movie also draws on Italian neorealism influences which means that it didn’t follow a strict script and depicts many of the basic pleasures of life and the ordinary human tragedies without a strict plot. The score of the movie was composed and performed by Ravi Shankar, one of the earliest works in his career that lead to him being one of the world’s most famous Indian musicians.

Pather Panchali is a sad but beautiful film.  It’s probably worth a rewatch at some future date when I have time to appreciate it better.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)


Title: The Battle of Algiers
Release Date: September 8, 1966
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Production Company: Igor Film | Casbah Film
Summary/Review:

I’ve meant to watch this movie for quite some time but never felt I’d be “in the mood” for a grim depiction of guerilla warfare and the horrors of colonialism.  While my assumptions of the movie are correct, I also found it to be a gripping drama that tells a very familiar story. Set in the Algerian capital during the early years of the Algerian War for Independence, 1954-1957, it depicts the  atrocities committed by insurgents and the police and military in an escalating series of reprisals in neorealist newsreel style. The movie reminded me of films of conflicts in Ireland, such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Bloody Sunday. But it’s also familiar from just watching the news from Iraq in recent decades.

The movie focuses on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a real life figure who is recruited and rises to a leadership position in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The role of counterinsurgency is taken by Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the movie), a fictionalized character based on the leaders of the French paratroopers who are called in to suppress the revolution.  But by and large, this is an ensemble film with hundreds of non-professional actors, many of whom were veterans of the war.

The Battle of Algiers begins and ends in 1957 with Mathieu victorious, with the rest of the film being an extended flashback.  But an epilogue shows the a revived and unified movement for independence beginning in 1960, which eventually lead to Algeria winning independence in 1962.  I find it stunning that this movie was made just a decade after the events depicted, shot on location with so many people who lived through the war in the cast.  It must have been so raw for them, but it also adds to the feeling of documentary-style authenticity.

This movie is not easy to watch with its unflinching depiction of mob violence, shootings, terrorist bombings, and torture. But it is an important movie to watch as it is a document not just of the Algerian War for Independence but of the repeating pattern of colonized and oppressed people rising up for their freedom, meeting harsh reprisals, and expanding into guerilla warfare.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Bicycle Thieves (1948)


Title: Bicycle Thieves
Release Date: November 24, 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production Company: Produzioni De Sica
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie once before, perhaps at the Brattle Theatre, about 20 years ago when the title was still being translated as The Bicycle Thief.  I didn’t remember it well despite it having a very simple story of poverty and injustice. It slots right in-between Rome, Open City and Umberto D for its unsentimental, neorealist portrayal of everyday life in post-war Rome, and I believe it’s the best of the three movies.

Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is one of many unemployed men in Rome and as the film begins he is able to get a position hanging posters around the city.  The catch is that he needs to have his own bicycle.  Antonio has pawned his bike, so his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns the linens they received as wedding gifts in order to retrieve the bike.  Things are looking good for Antonio and his young family, but on the very first day of work, his bike is snatched by a thief ((Vittorio Antonucci).

The better part of the movie is spent on a Sunday where Antonio and his adorable and resilient 8-year-old son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search for the bike and the thief.  The encounter a number of dead ends and the increasing sense of desperation of finding one bike in a city of millions.  There’s one joyous scene where Antonio rewards Bruno for his endurance by taking him for a simple meal, but even there they have to witness a wealthier family eat an elaborate meal.  They are able to find the thief but the people in the thief’s community stand up for him and with no other witnesses or the bike itself, the police are unable to act.

In the heartbreaking finale, Antonio desperately attempts to steal a bike himself, only to be swiftly captured.  This movie is not a happy one, but it is a very honest and human story.  It’s also wonderfully filmed and acted, and one of those movies where the city is its own character in the story.  Bicycle Thieves is a definite all-time classic.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1963)


Title: The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Release Date: October 2, 1964
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Production Company: Arco Film | Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Summary/Review:

Director Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist, homosexual, and Marxist, but took seriously Pope John XXIII’s invitation to dialogue with non-Catholic artists.  And after all, despite many Christians acting otherwise, the gospels (especially Matthew) tell a story of someone not unlike a Socialist revolutionary.  Pasolini used the techniques of Italian neorealism and cinema verite to film his retelling of the gospel.  And he cast ordinary farmers and working people, and even his own mother to star in the movie.  Jesus is played by Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish economics student and communist organizer.  With olive skin, dark hair, and an impressive unibrow, this is not the the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of Hollywood biblical epics.

The dialogue in the film is almost entirely taken directly from the gospel of Matthew.  It was filmed on location in southern Italy, with minimal effort towards creating sets and costumes of the Roman province of Judea 2000 years earlier.  In fact, I think the poverty and decrepitude of 1960s rural Italy is very effective for telling the story of Jesus.

This is a long movie, but is artfully done with amazing composition in every shot.  I ended up watching it in bits and pieces over several days which worked fine since the gospel is episodic by nature.  But I’m sure this movie could also be enjoyed in a single setting.  Either way it’s more of a movie to let wash over you and to feel a familiar story in a new way. It’s also interesting that this is clearly a modernist take on telling the Christ story on film, but so very different from Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell which were a decade away (maybe they’re postmodern?).

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Umberto D (1952)


Title: Umberto D
Release Date: January 20, 1952
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production Company: Rizzoli | De Sica | Amato
Summary/Review:

This movie is categorized as Italian neorealist which translates to meaning depressing AF!  Umberto Domenico Ferrariis (Carlo Battisti) an elderly man living on a pension and threatened by his landlady (Lina Gennari) to pay his back rent or face eviction. Over the course of the film we learn that she is getting married and wants to redecorate Umberto’s room to include in her upgrade apartment.  The gentrification theme feels very relevant.

Umberto’s only friend is the young maid, Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), who is facing her own struggles as she has become pregnant by one of the two soldiers she’s dating. Umberto goes to the hospital to be treated for tonsillitis, but also to enjoy a few days of free meals and to sleep without bedbugs.  Returning home he has to search for his beloved dog Flike in a harrowing scene at the pound, where less fortunate pups are being brought to a gas chamber.  Umberto attempts begging and giving away Flike but finds himself unable to do either, and the movie ends ambiguously.

As sad as it is, Umberto D is a beautiful and human depiction of an unfortunately all too common real life struggle.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Rome, Open City (1945)


Title: Rome, Open City
Release Date: September 27, 1945
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Excelsa Film
Summary/Review:

Filmed in the final days of World War II, Rome, Open City is a neorealistic film depicting a fictionalized account of the Italian Resistance Movement in 1944. There’s not much acknowledgement that Italy was an Axis power as by the time film begins, Rome is under control of the occupying German forces and the Italian fascist puppet government.  The main figures of the resistance in the movie are communist Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), Pina (Anna Magnani), and parish priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi). Don Pietro is supposed to marry Francesco and the visibly pregnant Pina but the crackdown of SS officers seeking Manfredi sets everyone in motion.

The film depicts the grim realities of the deprivation of a wartime city, betrayals, grim torture, and flat out murder.  But the film also contains moments of humanity, particularly Don Pietro’s devotion to protecting the resistance.  And there is hope in the children who assist the resistance and are the future of Italy.  Technically speaking this is a “low-budget film” but considering the conditions under which it was made it is a remarkable artistic achievement.

Rating: ****