At long last, I've seen Satyajit Ray's Pather Pachali, the first part of the Apu Trilogy, hailed everywhere as one of the great cinematic works, and I quite liked it. Ray's first film, I prefer to think of it as a work of Indian Neo-Realism; the story of a poor rural family, living on hope and dreams as they make their way through a variety of struggles, it's not all that far in tone from the work of De Sica or Rossellini, although Ray doesn't have quite their taste for sentimentality or for milking heartbreak to the last drop. While Ravi Shankar's restless sitar keys heightened action, it is never pushy, and often notably absent, when things turn doleful. The cinematography of Subrata Mitra, likewise, is perfectly unobtrusive, accent on perfect. Ray doesn't stint on the drama of these lives, but he prefers to look at its sadness in the face with prolonged silent close-ups, as in the film's final scene.
The family lives in a rural area and has fallen on hard times, as they've lost a good part of their land through debt, and no money is coming in. The father, who dreams of being a writer, makes do as a farm laborer; he fades in and out of the story as he cheerily struggles to find work, ever trusting the whims of Providence and good fortune. The mother works as a seamstress and tries to look after the two children, the daughter Durga and the boy Apu, to whom she can afford to feed little more than rice. Also under the family care is the aunt, a decrepit, hunchbacked, toothless and thoroughly weather-beaten old crone.
There is not an exceptional amount of plot to Pather Pachali, a title which for no obvious reason means "Song of the Open Road," although the road doesn't really figure into the story until the last scene. It is a series of slices of life about a family that can rely on nothing but hope; as the family finances dwindle, the father counts on his boss, a farmer and a "good man," to pay him the back wages the family so desperately needs. While the father is out looking for work, the mother works relentlessly to hold the family together. Durga, in a good-hearted effort to help the useless aunt, steals fruit from the neighbor's yard; the neighbors, who are completely unsympathetic, accuse her of stealing more and bring shame on the family. Apu, who is born just as the film opens, serves mostly as an observer of all that happens around him. As the family's domestic crisis worsens, their prospects look up and down at the same time -- the father is promised a job that doesn't pan out, then one that does. In the intervening period when he is away from home, the monsoon rains bring tragedy; when he returns home, flush with small-sccale success, his happiness is short-lived.
The last we see of the family is as they ride off to a new place, hoping for a kinder future. In a prolonged take, the father who has given up his dreams stares thoughtfull ahead; the mother beside him looks directly at us, as if staring into the uncertain future, breaks down and weeps. No music is needed. Their anguish burns right through the screen, and we do not need to be told how to feel.