You may not even realize it, but you're on a lifelong cinematic vision quest. We all are, in some way. And in the scheme of such a thing, the not-quite-six hours it takes to fall headlong into Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy is an eye blink, a blip. Yet it pays dividends nearly beyond belief.
Go. You should go. You probably do enough binge-watching in your life; this is slow food, immensely satisfying, something higher and deeper than the conventional multihour narrative commitment.
Released in 1955, 1956 and 1959, the Apu films collectively serve as a profound act of contemplation, an easy-breathing dramatic study of what it means to live -- to grow up, to lose loved ones, to get knocked around by life and fed by its riches. Ray, who brought Indian cinema onto the world stage, shot Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) across three years on a shoestring budget, working in rural Bengal. Ten minutes in, you're transported. The close-up of Uma Dasgupta, who plays the older sister of protagonist Apu (Subir Banerjee), photographed from inside a basket of kittens; the scolding look on the face of the elderly, toothless aunt (Chunibala Devi) as she tunes out her haranguing niece; these are priceless details in a quietly perfect film.
We meet Apu, mischievous and wide-eyed, at age 5. By the end of the trilogy's first film, he has experienced poverty, hunger, the death of a loved one and a wrenching departure from the only village he's ever known. In the film's most celebrated scene, he has also glimpsed his first train, thanks to his sister. When American director John Huston saw that nearly wordless train sequence in rough cut, he knew Ray was a master.
A year after the Cannes Film Festival triumph with Pather Panchali, the second chapter, translated as The Unvanquished, came out. It astounds in its breadth, its contrasts between rural and urban life. It begins with Apu at 10, living in Benares (now Varanasi). Father, the sweet, unassertive wanderer played by Kanu Bannerjee, ekes out a living no longer as a priest but as a storyteller. He has brought his family to the city in search of solidity. Karuna Banerjee plays his furrowed brow of a wife, Apu's mother. Her presence in the first two "Apu" films is the not-so-secret ingredient to its stealthy, emotional impact; she's simultaneously a rock and a woman in a very, very hard place. Yet she's a human being, not an abstraction.
Four different actors across the trilogy take Apu from preteen years to his 20s, into first love, into fatherhood and to the brink of a spiritual crisis. In Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), Soumitra Chatterjee creates Apu, the struggling writer, working as a tutor where and when he can, toiling on his novel about a village boy who travels to the big city.
Each of Ray's films has its distinct tone and rhythm, and seeing all three in a single sitting rewards the viewer in too many ways to recount. Ravi Shankar's musical scores are marvels of supple evocation. The locomotive motif throughout the trilogy, a symbol of Apu's yearning and life's transitions, works like a bloodstream.
The Apu trilogy screens July 10-16 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave. Tickets are $11.50 or $25 for a series pass (admission is free for Cinema members). For more information, visit www.gablescinema.com or call 786-385-9689.
Here is the schedule of screenings:
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road): July 10 at 4:00 & 6:45 p.m., July 11-12 at 4:00 p.m., July 13 at 4:00, 6:30 & 9:00 p.m. and July16 at 4:00 p.m.
Aparajito (The Unvanquished): July 10 at 9:15 pm, July 11-12 at 6:45 p.m., July 14 at 4:00, 6:30 & 9:00 p.m. and July 16 at 6:30 p.m.
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu): July 11-12 at 9:15 p.m., July 15 at 4:00, 6:30 & 9:00 p.m. and July 16 at 9:00 p.m.