Tuesday, January 14, 2014

DVD Review: Eclipse Series 40 - Late Ray [Criterion]


Reflecting his age and waning health, Satyajit Ray's final films successively scaled down the scope of his projects while ably maintaining the Bengali director's predominant thematic concerns and commitment to humanistic storytelling. From the beginning of his filmmaking career in 1955, one can identify Ray's primary preoccupation as the division between the interiority of domestic life and the expanse of the surrounding world. This contrast is of outmost consequence in work as otherwise diverse as Panther Panchali, The Music Room, and The Big City. Following a series of ambitious films including 1977's politically incisive The Chess Players and 1980's quasi-musical Kingdom of Diamonds, Ray suffered a heart attack during the making of 1984's The Home and the World, severely limiting his physical ability to work as a director. But while in the wake of these developments the breadth of his vision was reduced, his dedication to civilian struggle amid an increasingly compromised and uncaring cultural institution remained.

The title of this most pivotal of works discloses as much: The Home and the World, attuned as it is to the nuance of interpersonal relations and yet suggestive of larger social and philosophical concerns, is at once one of Ray's most intimate and immense works. Based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, and one that Ray had actually adapted and attempted to film decades earlier before production unceremoniously stalled, The Home and the World chronicles the (de)evolution of a marriage as it's challenged by a seductive outsider. When an impressionable wife (Swatilekha Chatterjee) is encouraged by her husband (Victor Banerjee) to explore the teachings of the seductive svengali Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), a politically progressive friend and ambassador of Swadeshi (self-sufficiency) ideals, a noble attempt at enlightenment turns instead into a romantically turbulent triangle of misplaced loyalty and unintended passion. The otherwise epic backdrop of British colonialism is concentrated by Ray into a familial drama depicting ruptures among everyday relationships as indicative of a broken system and a resistance movement which sparked equal fervor among a culture already divided by religious fundamentalism. The tribulations that beset the couple, while deeply felt, are but emblematic of the tragedies that befell a nation.

Now significantly restricted in his directorial process, Ray would by necessity approach his next project on logistically modest terms. The resulting film, An Enemy of the People, a 1989 adaptation of a stage play by Henrik Ibsen, is a comparably humble achievement, though this shouldn't in any way be read as a temperate or timid work. While unassuming, An Enemy of the People is one of Ray's most impassioned, ideologically acute films. Concerning the discovery and subsequent suppression of evidence of polluted holy water at a local Bengali temple, the film places its protagonist, one of Ray's most sympathetic, amid an entire village of corruption without leaving everyday interiors (indeed, the film was shot on a variety of soundstages). After confirming his suspicion of contamination, Dr. Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) plans on bringing forth this information to his fellow citizens, only to be met with resistance by everyone from religious officials fearing the announcement will affect both revenue and morale to the media to his brother, Nisith, a superior at the temple someone who could potentially buttress Ashoke's case. Despite tying up the drama a bit too neatly (resentments are followed in quick succession by a series of realizations and renouncements that push optimism to the point of saccharine), An Enemy of the People boils with a very pointed sense of discomfort which Ray conveys through the most simple, humane of gestures.

By the time of his final film, 1991's The Stranger, Ray had pared his new methodology to its purest state. Long a master of expanding the mental coordinates of enclosed spaces, he had now effectively been working in shorthand for a half-decade. So while The Stranger, like An Enemy of the People before it, lacks some of the compositional opulence of, say, The Music Room, it never lacks for internal dynamism. Another straightforward yet transformative story of a married couple brought to a moment of conversion by a mysterious figure, The Stranger finds Ray creating an entire emotional and philosophical landscape within unassuming, domiciliary walls. Ray's camera is in near-constant motion, moving from medium shots to close-ups and from character to character, opening up these claustrophobic spaces by drawing attention not to his locations but his actors. While of a completely different milieu, the film is nonetheless familiar in feel to the late, self-contained works of Carl Dreyer and Luchino Visconti. And like those fellow masters, Ray seems concerned with nothing less than the spiritual sanctification of his characters. When The Stranger's central couple let go of their skepticism and open themselves up to the potentialities of outside thought they, like the audience, emerge not only energized, but enlightened.

Image/Sound:
Satyajit Ray's final three films have been collected in Criterion's 40th Eclipse set, and the digital transfers are exceedingly strong for the standard definition format. The colors on all three films, mostly evidenced in costume design, are rich and occasionally even bold. The Home and the World utilizes darkness and shadows to a significant degree throughout, but the moodiness of the interiors is translated authentically. Balanced contrast and a hint of grain add to the appeal. An Enemy of the People and The Stranger transpire in far brighter confines, and are sharply rendered with few artifacts and multiple instances of bright, tight color. Sound, meanwhile, is offered in mono tracks, having little to handle in each instance besides dialogue, which is clear and upfront, with only momentary background noise, limitations of the technology utilized at the time.

Extras:
As per Eclipse standards, there are no digital supplements to note. There are, however, typically informative and thorough liner notes provided for each film by Michael Koresky.

Overall:
While in the wake of heart attack, the breadth of Satyajit Ray's final films was reduced, his dedication to civilian struggle amid an increasingly compromised and uncaring cultural institution remained. [Slant]

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