Sunday, March 22, 2009

The River

Jean Renoir, 1951 (7.5*)
The French master Jean Renoir discovered Ms. Rumer Godden's 1946 novel about living in India, The River, but couldn't find anyone to back the film as the story lacked the usual action elements of most western films about Asia. Eventually Kenneth McEldowney, a florist tycoon, who also loved the book, backed the film but they didn't have enough capital to hire big Hollywood actors (Renoir wanted Brando as the lead, but ended up with a non-actor war veteran who had actually lost a leg). The cast is actually part professional, part amateur. The book and film are really not about a strong plot (it centers on a young teenage girl's awkward coming of age), but are more like a documentary film on life along the Ganges, the river culture and lives along its banks; that and colonialist Britons trying to co-exist while basically occupying a foreign nation.

This was Renoir's first film in English, and first color film, released in 1951. As the son of the famous French impressionist painter, Auguste, he really laid on some beautiful, rich early Technicolor. Martin Scorsese was moved by this film at age 9 in the theater, and led the restoration effort, completed in 2004. The Criterion dvd edition is gorgeous. This is really the film's star, the glorious cinematography of a beautiful and colorful slice of Hindu culture. There are things westerners may learn about Indian culture from this film, such as the beautiful Festival of Lights. Renoir's own son Claude was director of cinematography, and though some of the techniques look a little dated, and the acting a little forced at times, this was the first color film shot in India, and as such, the movie takes on a more important societal role than mere entertainment.

For me the highlight of the Criterion dvd is the documentary done by the BBC, An Indian Affair, in which they returned to India with an 88 year old Rumer Godden to visit the locales where she grew up and that she hadn't seen in over half a century. Her own story is an amazing one, and she understood India better than any other western author. She apparently had an influence on Indian author Ruth Prawar Jhabvala as well, as it appears that a variation of Godden's own story was written by Jvabvala into her prize-winning novel Heat and Dust. This documentary is as well filmed as the Renoir movie (which is not as engrossing), and the dvd also features interfiews with Scorsese, Renoir, and producer McEldowney.

Part travelogue, part novel of a British girl's growing pains in a foreign land, The River remains an important early western look at the beauty and culture of India.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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