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.