Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rossellini & India

Cinematheque Ontario has mounted a huge Roberto Rossellini retrospective.

Man [sic] goes through four stages of life in the Hindu, Vedic tradition: (1) Brahmachari, ends at age 25: study, devotion, veneration of your teacher, celibacy; (2) Grihastha, ends at age 50: marriage, becoming a parent and householder; (3) Vanaprastha, ends at age 75: begin to move away from worldly attachments; and finally, (4) Sanyasa: Renouncing the material life, leaving home, devoting oneself to meditation and prayer and “the eternal life,” until death.

* * *

Along with Renoir’s The River, Rossellini’s 1958 documentary India, Matri Bhumi ("India, Motherland") is probably the best film I’ve seen about India made by a Western filmmaker. The former is readily available on a plush Criterion DVD, while the latter is mystifyingly difficult to see. Who knows if I’ll ever get a chance to see it again? So I thought I’d set down, affix, the memory of my first—and perhaps, last—date with this film.

While Renoir adapted Rumer Godden’s novel for his film, Rossellini traveled to India with the barest outline of what he wanted to do. He was fascinated, he said, by India’s “simultaneity of history” in which past and present, traditional and modern, seemed to coexist in harmony. Rather than create an impersonal, ‘objective’ documentary portrait of the country, he structured the film in the form of four highly fictionalized episodes, flanked by an overtly documentary—although still highly personal—beginning and ending.

The film begins in Bombay: “Upon arrival, one immediately feels euphoric,” the voiceover declares. Witty outsider observations about India and Indians follow, assembled in a fast-cutting, playful fashion. But before you know it, the film quickly leaves the city behind for the countryside, where it stays until the closing minute or so. The fast cutting is gone, replaced by (mostly) long takes and measured camera movements.

Rossellini has always had a great, deep feeling for place, and you can tell that he’s discovered a whole other realm with India. Before he gets to the stories, he first seizes an interlude to film and speak of temples and ancient Indian architecture, which calls to mind the antiquities of the museum scene in Voyage In Italy. The first episode relates the story of a young mahout (elephant handler) who works his charges in the jungle; how patient and saintly these elephants seem as they use their trunks to load trees onto a truck with composure. Then, in the film’s most lyrical scene, the men wash and scrub and minister to the elephants in a lake for hours under the hot sun. The two scenes (men work elephants, then pamper them) depict a wonderful give and take between animals and humans; there are animals galore in this film. Later, the mahout woos, proposes to, and marries a young woman he has only seen, never spoken to.

In the second episode, an engineer finds out that he’s been transferred out of his current assignment at the Hirakud hydroelectric project, on the Mahanadi river. (We lived right on the banks of this river in Orissa when I was a kid.) He spends a day visiting the vast work area for the last time, bidding farewell to the fruits of his labors, and those of thousands of other workers. His voiceover celebrates the miracle of electricity. He takes a ritual, prayerful dip in the dam reservoir; it’s a great gesture of connection between tradition and technology. With chalk, he writes on a wall the story of his emigration from East Bengal during the Partition. (Echoes of Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, with messages on buildings and walls soon to be submerged by a large hydro project.) He has a small altercation with his wife; they argue and he pushes her away roughly in a moment of frustration and sorrow over their leaving. I flashed back to Rossellini’s trilogy—Stromboli, Europa ’51, Voyage In Italy—the greatest films about marriage I've ever seen.

The last two segments deal with old age and death. An old man finds that the tiger in a forest might have been unsettled by the arrival of iron prospectors, and tries to chase the tiger away to a safe place. In the final episode, a monkey’s master dies during a heat wave and the monkey frees herself, wanders about hungry and then manages to find work as a trapeze artist at a circus. The film returns from the countryside to the city (Bombay) for a coda. The four fictional episodes, it seems to me, mirror roughly the four stages of the cycle of life in the Vedic tradition.

* * *

I think what I admire most about India is its wonderfully ‘messy’ collision of documentary and fiction, and its shaky relationship to neo-realism. The early neo-realist films (e.g. by De Sica) have a certain 'seamlessness of reality.’ Yes, I agree that they are socially purposeful films, set among the working class, using nonprofessional actors, actual locations, etc. But in place of the Hollywood classical cinema the neo-realist films were opposing, they substituted a ‘reality’ that is internally consistent and unruffling, with few overt and visible signs of personal mediation between ‘reality’ and the artwork. One might even argue that neo-realist films, like classical Hollywood films, aimed for a certain ‘invisibility of form.’ And they used traditional story structures, touches of melodrama and even, occasionally, some sentimentality that made a play for the viewer’s sympathies.

By contrast, Rossellini’s India is a (wonderfully) uneasy admixture of real and fictional elements; the ‘reality’ that he found in India combines both lyrically and jarringly with the multiple subjectivities that course through the film. For starters, the framing segments in Bombay are narrated in booming Western third-person voiceover. Within each fictional segment, there are usually two voiceover tracks, one an external observer (presumably a stand-in for Rossellini) and the other the lead (Indian) character in the segment. All the characters (whether they are Bengali, South Indian, etc) speak their voiceover, oddly, in Italian! (Like Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb, in which Rajasthani kshatriyas speak flawless German!)

Why do I admire these dissonances? Because Rossellini’s intense passion for his subject, India—not to mention his greatness as an artist—leads him to confidently, with conviction, place in full view the constructedness of the work. Not for him the ‘invisibility of form’ in service of ‘reality without artifice’ (is there such a thing?) that the early neo-realist films seemed to value so much. The four fictional stories are brazenly made-up, and although they use nonprofessional actors and location shooting, the film variously mocks the very idea of a documentary without deep subjective intervention and mediation. The best thing about this film is that it’s not a distanced, pretend-‘objective’ view of the country and its culture; it’s India completely filtered through Rossellini's subjective lens.

One of the interesting things about art is the way it resists rules and prescriptions. Key scenes (e.g. the tiger in the forest; the vultures circling the monkey and its dead master) are shot using inserts and cuts rather than deep-focus long takes, which Bazin might have maintained would have surely enhanced their impact. And yet, they work here even though we know that they involve camera trickery and props like fake blood. The intensity of intent and feeling that underpins these scenes gives them (to steal a phrase) a “truth beyond appearance” that is overpowering, one that is paradoxically enhanced when the 'seams' of subjectivity appear all the more prominently like tears in the tapestry of the film.


Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I'm seeing this tomorrow!

November 29, 2006 10:36 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

The grapevine says that a large group of Rossellini films come to Berkeley next year, perhaps the summer. I'm trying to be patient.

November 30, 2006 12:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach, I'd be very curious to hear your take on the film...!

Brian, this retro really made me wish I lived in T.O. or NYC. I ended up missing all of the history films that Rossellini made for TV in the last 15 years of his life. I had to cherry pick a few ultra-rare screenings and drive up just for those.

Considering Susan Oxtoby's close ties with Cinematheque Ontario, I suspect that an SF run has likely long been in the plans...

November 30, 2006 6:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Just got the new issue of Artforum in the mail.
It has James Quandt's top 10 for 2006:

--COLOSSAL YOUTH (Pedro Costa)
--SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
--STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang-ke)
--KODAK (Tacita Dean)
--ARMY OF SHADOWS (Jean-Pierre Melville)
--BAMAKO (Abderrehmane Sissako)
--MAGIC MIRROR (Manoel de Oliveira)
--WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sang-Soo)
--KRISTAL (Matthias Muller/Christoph Girardet)

November 30, 2006 4:41 PM  
Blogger Momo said...

As usual, many thanks for this, Girish - sadly I have not seen the film but, as always, your post makes me want to, at once!!! :-) Maybe the BFI/NFT will run a retro - isn't it his 100th this year?

I love the way you describe Rossellini's "subjective lens" - the, as you put it, "intervention and mediation" of the filmmaker's subjectivity, his take on India. Your thoughts draw me, however, to compare with Viaggio, where Naples was seen largely through the eyes of Katherine Joyce wandering through as a tourist and in the process focalizing the place for us, who are thus looking at those sights pretty much the way she is. Yet, because of the story (the failing marriage etc), the sights that we see through Katherine's eyes arguably take on emotional qualities consonant with the character (most obviously in the Pompeii episode). Does a similar effect come through for Rossellini's own subjectivity in his documentary, do you think? My own feeling from your descriptions is that Rossellini consciously posits himself as an outsider, and perhaps that comes through emotionally as an India presented with an unbridgeable foreignness? The India we are seeing is thus as alien as it must be to the filmmaker. Perhaps the whole deal of the film's self-conscious constructedness is therefore also to point to that? I haven't seen the film so, needless to say, will be very happy to hear your thoughts. :-)


November 30, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Great review. I like your parallel with the stages of life, very interesting. I saw this last year in the french version and Rosselini was doing the voice of the dam engineer. ;)
Like you, the messy dissonances stroke me, but it's a beautiful poem nonetheless. The awkward form was probably quite innovative for the time, but maybe a bit dated in today's standards... The bookend montage were very well done.

Is there only TIFF films in Quandt's top10?

December 01, 2006 4:54 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

He's been quiet for a little while, but Andy Rector is blogging again with some heavy posts on Colossal Youth and The Grapes of Wrath ...

December 01, 2006 7:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach, thank you for tipping us off to Andy's posts--they're terrific...

Harry, you're right; the list tilts more to TIFF than Cannes, doesn't it? I've seen 7 of them, and I saw them all at TIFF. The Oliveira didn't play TIFF, and the Melville had a general release here in the States this year for the first time.

Jenna, I'm always amazed by your ever-perceptive and sensitive take on films! You're so right, and about a film you haven't even seen yet!

Whether consciously or unconsciously (and honestly, it does not matter), Rossellini's subjectivity appears to have strong ties to his awareness of India's foreignness. This awareness also results in the supposed "awkwardness" of structure (fiction and doc mashed together), which I think works as a strength in the film because it serves to foreground the film's constructedness.

Of course, my response to this film was very much that of an Indian. I was constantly aware that these Indian characters were saying things (e.g. "I feel at one in the presence of nature," which I've never actually heard an Indian say out loud to me, even if they believe it) that were put in their mouths by this Italian dude....

"The India we are seeing is thus as alien as it must be to the filmmaker."

Great point! And as an Indian, it was alien even to me, because it's Rossellini's India, not really mine...

December 01, 2006 9:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Lots of cool stuff happening in the blogosphere.

--Big event of the weekend! Andy Horbal plays impeccable host to the Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon.
--Bay Area film screening tips at Brian Darr's place.
--Music reviews at Culturespace.
--Q&A with Stephen Frears on The Queen at The Evening Class.
--James Wolcott on improvisational versus scripted comedy.
--Acquarello on Kim Ki-duk's Time.
--Mubarak on Joao Pedro Rodrigues' Odete.
--Steve Shaviro on Samuel Delany.

December 01, 2006 10:29 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

What an elegant post. It's fantastic having your cultural perspective. It's so odd; I'm not sure where or why but I've seen Rossellini's INDIA, and I didn't realize it until you wrote about the vultures circling the monkey and its dead master and suddenly, wham, I could see that sequence clear as day. Films are so strange that way.

December 01, 2006 5:20 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I could swear I've seen that elephant before.... I finally found where and my, how time flies....)

I love your drawing style, Girish.

December 01, 2006 8:49 PM  
Blogger Momo said...

Hey Girish - thanks for your kind and thoughtful reply... "saying things... that were put in their mouths by this Italian dude" - *lol* it was very interesting indeed to read your response from your point of view of India... thanks again for this; take care.


December 01, 2006 9:30 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Maya, Jenna and Tuwa--thank you!

Tuwa, I admit I've been lazily resurrecting some drawings from old posts. :-) But I hope to hit the sketchbooks and generate some new stuff over winter break...thank you for your kind words. They mean a lot to me.

Great news--Just heard from Adrian: Madman in Australia is releasing Rossellini's India on DVD next year, with an audio commentary by him...

December 01, 2006 10:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

--Filmbrain on Isabel Coixet's The Secret Life of Words.
--Pacze Moj has posts on Pauline Kael and Sophie Scholl.

December 02, 2006 8:54 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Ah, how gauche of me. I didn't mean to imply you were lazy, just that I find your images very memorable (it was over a year ago that I saw it last).

December 02, 2006 11:07 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Sorry for the double post. Blogger hiccup....

December 02, 2006 11:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, not gauche at all, Tuwa!
It was my guilt that kicked in... :-)
I enjoy the process of drawing and find it relaxing, and should be doing it on a regular basis...

It's all about good time management, isn't it? It's my big struggle anyway, from day to day...

December 02, 2006 11:24 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I'm just being jealous Girish, the titles in this list are all the great films I have yet to see... Yet I'm willing to believe the Toronto offering was superior to the one in Cannes (which was rather middlebrow this year).

If the size of your description for each segment in India is any indication of your preference, I guess it matches my impressions too, the last two were more disappointing (in both form and content). And my favorite was the first, with the parallel romance of the elephants and the humans. I like this comedic scene where the mahout climbs every day up the same tree to take a peek at his fiancee, and his elephant has soon eaten all the leaves and would prefer go elsewhere.

December 03, 2006 1:23 AM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

Thanks for the mention, Girish!

Very good news about India appearing on DVD - and with commentary by Adrian Martin, no less. I can still vividly recall much of the film's imagery months after seeing it; those which revolved around the jungle (the bathing of the elephants, the hunting of the tiger) and open spaces (the desert with the vultures, the dam!, the Ganges). I'm drawn to the film's preservation of 'sacredness' of that which it regards - the long stretches of men bathing elephants (a sacred animal, from my basic understanding of Hindu mythology), or drifting along the banks of the Ganges - communicates a delicate spiritualism in Rossellini's gaze, that is beautifully captured by a line spoken by the narrator: "Everything particularly beautiful or useful becomes particularly sacred." I also wonder about all those "hundreds of hours of images" which didn't make it to the finished film - they too surely contain some kind of truth, further incidental notions of the real India.

December 03, 2006 4:16 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Time management?!! What a novel concept. I simply don't have time to.

December 03, 2006 1:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Maya ~ I've been trying to make daily checklists with to-do items and time frames. Let's see how it works out. (Ha!)

Harry, what a great sight gag that was: the bare tree, its branches sticking out like the limbs of a naked man, caught unawares and sheepish...!

Mubarak ~ You have an enviable memory of the film; and thank you for the Hoveyda link, which I hadn't seen.

>Thanks for the mention, Girish!

You're most welcome, Mubarak. And since I find your blog to be most educational and insightful, I'm thinking of circulating a blog-petition to require (okay, request) you to give us our fix more often! You owe it to your fans! :-)

December 03, 2006 3:26 PM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...


Time management is a novel concept to me as well, it would appear.

December 03, 2006 10:18 PM  
Anonymous 9 said...

i am kino
and this is the map of the universe,
it's based upon the parallel history of cinema..

December 11, 2006 6:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it was great reading your appreciative commentry of the film- watched it last night-i haven't seen any of his other films- will do so now


November 27, 2007 1:14 PM  

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