Today, I took my first director suggestion. My close friend Anusha suggested I look at Satyajit Ray, Indian film pioneer. I was familiar with Ray from a film series at the IU Cinema a few years ago, and I had a set of the Apu Trilogy. So I was happy to look at Ray. For a pairing, I decided to choose another director that was heavily linked to their own culture. After looking around, I decided Ingmar Bergman was the perfect choice.
So today’s films are:
Ingmar Bergman – Summer Interlude (1951)
Satyajit Ray – Pather Panchali (1955)
I had seen Pather Panchali before on the big screen, but I had never seen Summer Interlude, though I’m familiar with several other Bergman films.
So let’s get into it.
Summer Interlude (1955)
Summer Interlude is the story of a ballet dancer who receives a diary on the eve of opening night. From the audience’s perspective, the diary is a mystery. Who does it belong to? Why was it delivered to her now? What does it reveal to her?
While we wonder about these questions, we can see that the ballet dancer, Marie, sees a lot of meaning in the diary. She knows exactly who it belongs to and what it means. The film then takes us on a journey as Marie explores her own past and we begin to learn who Marie is, and what led her to her current life.
Her current life is not particularly inspiring. She is angry, snaps at everyone, and even her boyfriend, Nystrom isn’t immune to her wrath. When they first meet, he attempts to surprise her by sneaking up on her, but she’s angry. They fight over how much time she spends at the ballet, and he leaves.
A technical problem at the theater pushes a planned dress rehearsal to the evening and Marie goes wandering. She gets on a ferry and takes a ride to an island. As she walks the island, it appears deserted. We see only an old woman dressed all in black, who doesn’t acknowledge Marie at all.. Marie follows her.
The symbolism here seems pretty clear. This is a place of death. Either literal death, or figurative. For Marie, she’s visiting a past that doesn’t exist anymore.
She eventually finds a small shack near the water and enters. Bergman tells us this is a familiar place to her by the fact that she must unlock the door. By giving the character the key, Bergman gives us a small clue here for the careful viewer before he confirms it later. As she enters the small shack, we can see there is some furniture, but it clearly hasn’t been lived in recently.
She sits on the bed, and a voiceover begins. We hear Marie’s thoughts, and begin a flashback to 13 years before. At 15 years old we see a very different character. We begin at a ballet performance, where she is still the lead. She is insecure, asking everyone she sees to tell her that it was a good performance. She takes the ferry home, and meets a young man named Henrik. Instead of the dour, serious woman we saw in the present, we see a light, playful young woman who teases, smiles and jokes.
She wakes in the small shack we saw earlier, which is now furnished with a bed and we see a normal morning for her. She greets the day by opening all the shades and looking out into the sunny world, singing to herself as she puts on her bathing suit, brushes her teeth, and grabs her fishing rod and goes out into the world. Bergman increases the gap between the Marie we’ve seen in the present and this younger Marie in these scenes. Marie meets Henrik again and takes him to a secret place to pick wild strawberries, where they have a deep conversation, something we aren’t sure that present-day Marie is capable of.
This film plays like a mystery story, except instead of trying to solve a murder or theft of some kind, we are trying to solve the mystery of Marie in the present. From the difference between the two characters, Bergman tells us that something truly awful must have happened.
This creates an interesting kind of tension where we as the audience begin looking for clues. We meet her uncle Erland, who appears to be a family friend, who is inappropriately flirty. He suggests they’ll run away together someday. She flirts right back to him, teasing him. They speak of her mother, who died at some point, and how great she was. Erland was clearly in love with her while she was alive, and still is, but is married to Marie’s aunt now.
Is some lost memory of her mother the reason that she changes? Some trauma with her uncle? Marie leaves to see Henrik, who was spying. He is jealous and they fight. Does Henrik break her heart and make her change? The film isn’t ready to reveal it, and the couple makes up.
There’s a great scene here where Henrik and Marie proclaim their love for each other. They describe the feelings in their bodies as they fall in love with each other, the tingling skin, the pounding hearts. It’s a beautiful scene of two people experiencing love for the first time.
We see a glimpse of Marie’s home life, when she brings Henrik home to the large manor house. Erland is drunk, playing the piano, and telling stories of Marie’s mother. Her aunt sits quietly, trying to make things seem normal by offering sandwiches. This is one of our first big clues of how Marie became so broken.
Marie and Henrik escape to her training room, and make love for the first time. She couldn’t be happier about being with Henrik. Seeing Marie’s life as a youth gives us some evidence of how her life could have changed over time. But we still don’t have the full story.
We move to the present with Marie still on the island. She visits the manor house, exploring the home. She finds the piano, and her old training room. They clearly aren’t regularly used. She finds another surprise, Uncle Erland is there, using the manor for a hunting trip. He reveals that he was the one that sent the diary to Marie. He speaks about her as a teenager, and she says something very telling:
“That was someone else.”
Just like we the audience see the older Marie as a different person, she sees herself as a different person as well.
Marie also reveals something else, that after Henrik was out of her life, she had some kind of relationship with Erland. This is surprising information for us, but reveals a bit more of the mystery. Henrik disappeared at some point, and it was traumatic enough for Marie to seek comfort from Erland. The story in the present proceeds as Marie returns to the ferry.
The flashback continues as we see the first major bit of friction with Henrik. Marie is practicing, and Henrik arrives wanting to spend time with her. The summer is coming to an end, and she wants to prepare for her return to the ballet. Henrik wants to spend as much time as possible with her before they are forced to separate. She chooses her practice over him. He leaves and she screams that she never wants to see him again as he leaves the manor.
She regrets the fight, and goes to find him, eventually finding his aunt’s home, where she is playing chess with a reverend. She reveals that is dying of cancer, and that Henrik will inherit from her. But she also claims that she’ll outlive everyone, including Henrik. In addition, as the reverend leaves, he says playing chess with his aunt is like ‘rubbing elbows with death.’
There’s a lot of death imagery here, and a careful viewer is likely pulling a lot of information out of it. Bergman is laying in foreshadowing, telling us that danger is nearby. This is piled on in the next scene as the couple returns to the fishing shack. They look at records and begin making drawings, which become a small animation from our perspective. In the animation, Henrik and Marie are represented as simple figures, defeating Henrik’s aunt and the reverend, before a man representing the ballet crushes Henrik, and Marie bows down.
The animation tells us that Henrik will eventually be gone, but that ballet will always be Marie’s choice. We can take Bergman literally here. As the scene continues, a bird calls outside, which Marie is afraid of. There might be some cultural information here that I’m not getting, as the bird could be related to some kind of danger in Swedish culture. Regardless, Marie’s fear is real, and it’s another layer in the danger the film is leading to. We can’t ignore it any longer.
We reach the payoff of all this foreshadowing in the next scene. The couple is out exploring when Henrik takes a dive off of a high rock to impress Marie. Instead of a splash, we hear a scream, and we know what has happened. Henrik crawls out of the water and Marie runs to him, helping him. His face is covered in blood. The film transitions into a hospital room, and with no dialogue tells us that Henrik has died. Erland is there, and takes her home.
The next scene Bergman solves the mystery, showing us how Marie became who we have seen in the present. Throughout the film, Henrik has been accompanied by his dog, Gruffman. Now Marie claims that the dog must be killed so that it doesn’t have to live without it’s master. Erland agrees and promises to do it himself. She gives a very dark speech about how she plays and dances while Henrik rots.
Here Erland reveals his part in the story. He tells her that he’ll help her build a wall so that misery cannot get in. We know he has experience with this from the way he talks about her mother. Having a man like this take her under his wing is the worst mentor that Marie can have, but she can’t refuse. This is the moment when Marie becomes the person we see in the present. She has built a wall around herself with Henrik’s help, and it is no wonder she hates him as she remembers who she used to be, regardless of any physical relationship that might have happened.
The film continues with Marie in the present, Marie has her dress rehearsal, and the director of the ballet appears in costume, trying it out for a future performance. The metaphor here is clear, but Bergman makes it explicit anyway. Marie is also wearing a costume, but one that she hasn’t taken off since Henrik died.
Her boyfriend appears and she begs him to be kind to her. He accurately assesses that she’ll just push him away again. Finally, she gives him the diary, and tells him to read it, and they’ll talk again the next day. I’m not totally clear on the metaphor that Bergman is using here, but it appears that by allowing someone else to know about her life with Henrik, she is finally able to bury that last piece and move on, as if Henrik couldn’t rest until his inner thoughts were known.
The final scene shows us the opening night performance with Nystrom, her boyfriend waiting in the wings. She sneaks away to kiss him before returning to the performance, and we begin to see a person that might be able to love again.
This is a really complex film, and considering how early it is in Bergman’s career, even more impressive. He’s able to set up a mystery, keep us interested, and pay it off in a satisfying way, while still creating serious conflict, and redeeming his main character. It’s a fine line to walk, but Bergman manages it. There was never a moment in the film where I didn’t want to know more about Marie, including the end.
The film also does a great job of telling us where we are in time. This is mostly done through costuming and makeup for Marie, and set design. The film is careful to follow a scene in one era with a scene in the other era in the same location, so we can see the difference. Also helping us is the fact that the elder Marie is experiencing all of this on the same day, so we see her in the same outfit in the present, or transitioning from one location to another. In addition, the weather in the present and past are internally consistent: bright and sunny in the past, dark and gloomy in the present. This also adds to the mood of the film.
This transition is also sold by Maj-Britt Nilsson, the actress playing Marie. She has a serious challenge here, as she essentially plays two characters. Without her talent at playing this dual role, the film wouldn’t work at all. It’s likely we’d be totally lost.
The film is sad, which is to be expected from Bergman, but there’s also hope. Marie has worked through a serious past tragedy, and appears to be better for it. After seeing a handful of Bergman films, I think I’d rate this one as my favorite.
Pather Panchali (1955)
Pather Panchali is one of the earliest independent films from India, directed by Satyajit Ray. It is based on a book of the same name which translates as “Song of the Little Road”. It tells the story of a rural Indian family as they struggle to survive and achieve their modest dreams. The story is told through simple vignettes, as we see little slices of their lives.
We see the story through the eyes of Apu, the youngest member of the family. He is born in an early scene and the family coalesces around him. His mother Sarbojaya, his father Harihar, and his sister Durga. In addition, a grandmother (in local parlance, an ‘Auntie’) also lives in the small compound of buildings they call home. The Auntie is a constant joy for Durga, who steals fruit from a local orchard to bring her, and a constant annoyance for Sarbojaya, who is annoyed with her corrupting influence on Durga.
Harihar, the father, struggles to earn money for the family as a priest and writer, but soon finds work locally, hopefully earning enough for the family to achieve their dreams. After Apu is born, Sarbojaya reveals the dreams she has for life: Apu is educated by his father, Durga finds a good husband, they all get two meals a day, and new clothes every year. These dreams are so simple and modest, you can’t help but root for her and the family.
The film jumps forward, and we see the world through Apu’s eyes. Durga is a young woman, but the family isn’t any better off. We see the compound they live in, a series of rooms, and a barn surrounded by a crumbling wall. Rather than go through the gate, the children frequently crawl through one of the many holes. Still, Sarbojaya is proud, she ensures the house is kept clean, and admonishes her children to be better. Harihar has not been paid for months, and she has had to borrow money from a neighbor, which she sees as a deep shame. We see even more evidence of this as the children travel to the home of this neighbor, chasing a traveling sweets salesman, hoping that the children there will share with them.
At the neighbors house, we see the poverty of Apu’s family highlighted. The neighbors house has a complete wall and lots of livestock.
At the home, Durga sees one of her friends with a bead necklace, which she is immediately taken with. This pays off shortly, as the mother and her two children arrive at Sarbojaya’s home, telling her that the bead necklace is missing, and they believe Durga took it. They search Durga’s possessions without permission, but don’t find it. Sarbojaya receives a tongue-lashing from the neighbor, telling her that she’s a bad mother who cannot control her children, and that she should be ashamed for borrowing money and not paying it back.
Sarbojaya’s shame is not helped by Durga appearing with a fresh load of stolen fruit. The neighbor has even more ammunition, and lays it on thick before finally leaving. All the stress finally breaks in Sarbojaya and she grabs Durga by the hair, dragging her out of the compound. She sobs at the gate until her husband comes home. He has finally been paid. She can pay back her neighbor, and they discuss what bills need to be paid, and which can wait. They both know that repairs need to be made to their home, but the home has survived the recent rains, so they can wait for a bit.
These experiences (except for throwing Durga out) are essentially universal, and one of the reasons that this film is so successful narratively. While I have a lot of Indian friends, I have never been to India, and the world they live in is still alien to me, but I of course can understand worrying about money, and deciding which bills to pay and which might have to wait for a bit, and making sacrifices and hoping for the future.
The relationship between Durga and Apu is very well developed. Apu asks her where he can see a train. As a young boy this is the biggest dream he has. One day, they take a journey together across the countryside until we start to see glimpses of the modern world, power lines, telegraph lines, and finally, train tracks. They hear the train before they see it. It goes by in a flash, too fast for the camera to perceive it. They fight like brother and sister, but Durga clearly loves and takes care of her brother.
As they return home, they find the auntie sitting on the road. She has been walking from home to home, after Sarbojaya told her to leave because she is so worried about feeding another mouth. She is waiting to die. Durga finds her and realizes what has happened. The funeral passes quickly. A normal part of the background of the world.
Harihar has received an offer for work as a priest in Delhi, and decides to travel by himself to earn money for the family. Sarbojaya is hesitant, but she cannot seriously object.
In the time he leaves, things start to fall apart. Sarbojaya must sell any valuables she has to purchase rice for the family. She expects Harihar back in a couple of months, but then receives a letter from him saying the good paying work he was hoping for will not happen, but he will travel home slowly, finding work along the way. His trip drags on and on. He doesn’t write for four months. Her anxiety increases, and she sells more valuables. The neighbor who was so hostile earlier in the film arrives, and sees what is happening. This time she offers money without any expectation of return, just wanting to help her friend.
Durga plays in the rain after performing a ritual for luck and she gets sick. She lies in bed as a doctor attends to her. He assures her that everything will be ok, and gives basic directions. But then a storm begins. The storm howls and wails, and Sarbojaya holds Durga close. The storm is much worse than anything we’ve seen before in the film.
In the next scene, Apu visits the neighbor, telling her that Sarbojaya has asked for her to come. Even if Apu is oblivious, she knows that something has gone horribly wrong. As they arrive at the house, the damage is immense. The walls are crushed by fallen trees, and the yard is completely inundated with water.
She arrives to see Sarbojaya holding Durga, who is motionless. Apu asks if she is sleeping, and the neighbor says yes, and to go get her husband. Even if Apu doesn’t know, we as the audience know. Durga has died.
Harihar finally returns after 5 months and sees the shocking damage. When he enters, he finds his wife, who can only hold on so long before she breaks down. The connection between the house and family is clear. They waited to make repairs to the home, and now, like the family, it is destroyed. Has Harihar neglected his family? Perhaps, but what choice did he have? He’ll have to live with his choices now.
Regardless, he returns with money, and he decides to leave the family homestead. The village elders return to object, noting that he is the third generation to live there, but he explains how he can’t stay. He lists off the same dreams that Sarbojaya mentioned earlier and how they failed. He was unable to educate his son, his daughter will never marry, and he can’t keep his family fed or clothed properly. He doesn’t have the money to repair the home, so he must leave.
In one final scene, as the family is gathering their belongings, Apu reaches up to a high shelf where his sister has hidden things before. He finds the bead necklace that caused so much anger earlier in the film. He throws the last memory of his sister into a nearby pond, knowing he can’t be caught with it.
As the smaller family retreats from the home, the looks on their faces are haunted. We can only hope that their futures are brighter.
Pather Panchali is a beautiful, heartbreaking film. The family is constantly attacked from all sides in their daily struggle to survive. Sarbojaya is the most sympathetic, as she is charged with keeping the family together while Harihar wiles away the days, laid back and relaxed, certain that everything will work out ok. Durga is mischievous, learning early how to work around poverty to get luxuries they wouldn’t normally have.
Apu, being the character we see the film through isn’t as strongly developed, but seeing his wide eyes looking at the world gives us our own youthful perspective on the events of the film. We feel Sarbojaya’s tension, even if she doesn’t always reveal it, and we see Durga as the heroic figure that Apu sees.
The film is gorgeous. This is Ray’s first film, and his cinematographer was a professional still photographer, but hadn’t shot a movie before. But even with those limitations they manage to create some incredibly beautiful images. Ray shot the film over 5 years, and eventually received funding from the government to complete it. He continued on to create a trilogy of films centered on Apu, and become a legendary filmmaker in his home country and around the world. I hope to look at the other films from this trilogy eventually.
The Double Feature
This was the most challenging double feature emotionally so far. Both films center on characters who endure great losses and how it affects them. The entirety of Summer Interlude is about a character dealing with loss, while Pather Panchali creates an unexpected loss in the last moments of the film.
Had I reversed the order of the films, they might have left me less distraught, as Summer Interlude ends with us having a bit of hope that the character will eventually be ok. In Pather Panchali, the characters ride silently into the future, and we have no idea what will happen to them next.
It was definitely a challenging experience emotionally. In some cases these experiences can be cathartic, but in this case, I never reached catharsis.
That said, they’re both exceptional films, covering some of the same themes, although not that similar. If I were to do this again, I’d likely swap the order, and I think it would be more satisfying.
I’m starting to feel better this summer. I still have a few weeks of lower responsibilities to recharge and I’m starting to feel normal again, which is a good feeling. I’m going to focus on more exercise for myself in addition to the blog writing. I’ve definitely slacked off on exercise for the last few months, and it’s important for me to get back to it.
So for the next two films, I want to attempt to do something a bit lighter. I think eventually I’ll look at two more popular movies, but next time, I think I’ll stick with something still fairly obscure.
So after looking through my collection, I’ve chosen a couple of heist films. The next pair of films are:
Georges Franju – Judex (1963)
Stanley Kubrick – The Killing (1956)
Judex is a film I’ve never seen, but am very excited for, while The Killing is my first Kubrick film, and one of if not my favorite Kubrick film. Looking forward to jumping into these soon.