INDIA: MATRI BHUMI A
Italy France (95 mi) 1959 d: Roberto Rossellini
On arrival one feels euphoria. The first surprise is the crowds. One sees tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, forming an endless river which has nevertheless not destroyed the vestiges of the past that Moslems, Persians, and English colonisers built.
As the story goes, sometime after the film was shown at Cannes in 1959, none other than Henri Langlois, noted French film archivist, lent the sole copy of this film to another artist, a sculptor or a painter, where the film languished for decades, believed to be lost, until a surviving relative discovered the film and eventually returned it to the Cinémathèque Française, where they were able to partially restore a badly faded film which had already begun to decompose. The resulting film remains badly faded, where especially the natural shots of lakes, rivers, forests, and sky formations of this highly personalized documentary on India are particularly washed out, leaving the viewer to only imagine what all of this must have looked like initially, as the visuals in this mostly rural setting look enticing. An inevitable comparison might be made to Louis Malle’s epic 6-hour pictorial bonanza Phantom India (L'Inde fantôme) (1969), where Malle himself offers his own gentle narration to one of the most colorful and astonishingly beautiful films ever made. Unfortunately, due to the bleached out colors of this film, this comparison is blatantly unfair, but for what it’s worth, Malle’s film is more non-judgmental and observational in tone, offering quiet, understated reflections, asking the viewer to become immersed in the journey, while Rossellini’s is laden with personality, opening with humor yet becoming utterly somber by the end with a blending of narrators who each offer unique views of their lives, becoming a unified voice molded into one, much like Terrence Malick’s narration of collective voices in THIN RED LINE (1998). Rossellini can be a tough nut to swallow, as he's loved by the auteurists (Rosenbaum and Fred Camper), but can be philosophically oblique, bordering on pompous, occasionally veering towards the arcane by the end of his career. His Italian realist films are easier to comprehend because of their more understandable social settings, but later in life he became spiritually challenged, as if time left him fewer opportunities to complete his relationship with the Eternal. This film however, is highly accessible to people of all ages, as animals are as prominently featured as humans, which is one of the themes of reincarnation, that we are all one.
Opening with the sprawling mass of humanity that greets visitors in the immensely populated city of Bombay (now Mumbai), India, Rossellini moves into the rural areas where we will find what he calls the “authentic” Indian people, which may not be translated correctly, though the translation was privately subtitled by Rossellini biographer and film scholar Tad Gallagher, but this was one of the few unintentionally discordant or contentious remarks heard in the film, as one wonders if urban dwellers are any less real or genuine, but perhaps a clue is to think of people unspoiled or changed from their ancestral heritage. The narrator also concludes that due to the dozens of religious affiliations and tribal groups coexisting within the Indian culture, that it is a tolerant, as opposed to intolerant society. Again, this strikes the viewer as being the idea of an enamored visiting tourist, as this thoroughly disregards the inherent social injustices of the outlawed yet firmly entrenched caste systems that date back thousands of years, creating sub-castes of people who are considered less than human, and overlooks as well India’s violent warring history with their neighbor Pakistan, which goes back to the late 40’s when each obtained their independence from Great Britain, making this, along with similar long standing disputes with China and Nepal, one of the largest land-boundary disputes in the world. The result has been a huge military build up, increasing aggression and hostility on both sides, suggesting a stubborn refusal to seek peaceful political solutions and reflects a glaring religious and cultural intolerance. However, to be fair, in the late 50’s when this film was made, the disputes between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region had not yet escalated to the point of dueling nations taunting each other with nuclear threats, which reached its heights in the late 90’s.
This film however reflects the lives of ordinary people and has an affectionate charm in the first person narration, opening with an elephant handler, who works with several other man-guided elephants logging trees in the forest and hauling the wood on their tusks or carried behind on chains to a specific destination. Initially one thinks of man’s exploitive use of these giant animals, but the narrator reminds us they only work 3 hours early each morning, as it gets too hot for them after that, requiring full-time care for the rest of the day from their handlers who must coddle them, pamper them, bath them, feed them, walk them, cajole them, then feed them again, which leaves them time for little else. His love of the animal is translated to the viewer, as we see him splashing and scrubbing his animal in the river, where he has a thoroughly charming way of describing elephant behavior, including one besmitten elephant couple that needs their space. This parallels his own human behavior when he spots an attractive young girl from a traveling puppet show that arrives in town, and he brings his elephant to feast on a tree behind her house where he can get a good look at her each day, that is until all vegetation from the tree has been eaten. The narrator’s gentle charm and easy going manner reflects a harmony with the natural world around him and with his newly discovered love.
The film then uproots us from this delightful elephant reverie and places us in the middle of a giant dam construction project where the new narrator, whose family unit resembles that of the last narrator, beams with pride just to be able to participate in such an enormous undertaking. But it has a cost, as 190 men have lost their lives working on this project, a small amount when compared to the number of people who would die from flooding if the dam were not built, but there’s a pervasive feel of disconnection to modernity, best expressed by the immediate shift in music, wonderfully written throughout by Philippe Arthuys, which has transformed from the celebratory traditional village music in the opening segment to an eerie experimental sound design, much like the dissonant electronic music from Antonioni’s RED DESERT (1964), which accentuates man’s alienation to the world around him. But while this narrator affirms his part in the building process, pick by pick, step by step, stone by stone, a human chain working in solidarity until the construction project is complete, the camera gazes at a funeral ceremony where the deceased is burned on a wooden pyre, or catches the couple in a humorous marital spat which is nearly Chaplinesque in its wordless body language and its intentional lack of translation, as his wife is furious at being displaced, as they will have to move to his next job assignment. In contrast to the opening segment, this shows how modernization and human progress separates man from his natural world, leaving him more exposed to face the future alone.
We’re back in the jungle in the next segment, when an elderly man has already retired, whose manicured rice fields are farmed by his sons, allowing him solitary retreats into the jungle, the only place where he can contemplate his place in the order of things, where he understands the sounds that emanate from a pair of courting tigers nearby, but also the danger at living in such close proximity. When the noise from tractors at construction projects nearby scare many of the animals out of the jungle, one of the tigers is wounded by a porcupine it is unnaturally forced to hunt, causing it to even attack humans, as in desperation it can no longer stay away at a careful distance. The villagers meet and decide that for their own protection the tiger must be killed, but the elderly man is revolted by the thought of killing any living creature, as under his spiritual belief of reincarnation, all creatures are descendants of one another and are all brothers, and rises early in the morning and attempts to smoke the tiger out of its familiar territory and force it to move further away where it will remain unharmed.
The warm, playful humor that has been present in the narration throughout suddenly veers into a solemn tone, as dangerous heat levels can also take its toll on human lives. A man with a cutely dressed monkey that he carries tied to a chain on his shoulder passes out and eventually succumbs to heat stroke in a walk through the countryside, leaving the monkey, still chained to the man, to fend for itself as the vultures swarm high above the body and gather ever closer. This is simply stunning footage, as the helplessness of the monkey wordlessly escalates. We later see it in town still carrying a long chain, without any explanation of how it escaped, but we do see how the monkey is ignored by nearly everyone except children who are fascinated that it continues to perform tricks even without its master. The futility of its future becomes evident, even if not shown, as it is spurned by the wild monkeys for having a human smell, as the camera follows other monkeys jumping furiously through the trees, making spectacular leaps, something a monkey still carrying a chain around its neck could never do, suggesting that when the interconnecting bond between humans and animals is broken, death, the ultimate chain we carry around our necks, is inevitable.