CIRCLING THE MONKEY
I saw an extraordinary film last night - Roberto Rossellini's little-seen India, Matri Bhumi ("India, Motherland").
Film critic Girish Shambu calls it, along with Renoir's The River (which I adore), the best film he's seen about India made by a westerner.
After seeing it at Cannes in 1959, Godard said that "[Rossellini] has already gone on from the point which others may perhaps reach in 20 years. INDIA is the creation of a world."
After Cannes, though, the film virtually disappeared - for over 40 years.
There's only one copy of it - a faded print that has yet to be restored (did you hear that, Mr. Coppola?).
A new group called The Chicago Cinema Forum arranged the screening - which consisted of a DVD of that faded print being projected onto a screen.
Still, it was mind-blowing: part documentary and mostly fiction that used non-actors doing their real jobs.
The first segment concerned a mahout (elephant handler) in Karnataka, and was a lyrical examination of their daily life; for three hours each day the elephants push down trees and gracefully haul massive logs between tusks and trunk to a truck, where they gently set them down. This mesmerizing scene went on for some time, and the only sound was of the bells that hung around the elephants' necks. After three hours of work, the elephants were finished for the day. But not the mahouts. They spent the rest of the day washing, massaging, reassuring, feeding and caring for them. There were some really funny elements - including a subplot about elephants mating and the mahout finding his own mate in which it was noted that "after 10 months of pregnancy the female wants nothing to do with the male." And seeing long, lingering shots of an audience of villagers staring staring stonefaced at a raucous puppet show made me realize how stupid we all look while watching movies....
The second segment was about an East Bengali refugee who'd helped build a new dam and was being relocated to a new site. The third concerned an elder gent who lived in a village and spent his time contemplating nature in the vast nearby jungle.
The part fourth seemed to be a documentary about a heat wave -- all of the animals went into the water in order to cool off, and humans did the bare minimum to survive -- but then it focused on an old man who was walking to a fair in a nearby town with a performing monkey on his shoulder.
The man keeled over from the heat, face-up in the middle of the desert.
The monkey, wearing a shirt and pants and attached to a chain, did not know what to do.
The vultures started to gather.
First the monkey tried to revive his master, poking its head under his shirt and squealing. No response.
The vultures came closer.
The monkey, still chained, went over to the man's face and began grooming him. He hugged his head. He burrowed his head in his neck. He hid under his shirt. Nothing.
More vultures arrived.
The monkey had that chain around his neck, and you feared he'd be attacked, too.
I was becoming quite upset, until I remembered that the monkey was an actor and I was watching a movie.
The monkey eventually stood up on top of the man and jumped and screamed at the vultures.
They did not go away.
In fact, they came closer.
Finally, at the very last minute, the monkey fled; apparently the chain wasn't attached after all.
But that wasn't the end of his saga.
He made his way to the fair, and did his performance. Out of habit, he collected money from the audience - even though he had no use for it.
Then he found a place to spend the night.
The wild monkeys wanted nothing to do with him with his chain and clothes and "human smell."
(I saw this as a commentary on the lot of post-Independence Indians who had worked for the British).
The monkey was weak and on his last legs when the narrator said that he finally found a new master - and a new profession.
The next scene showed him waiting his turn as another monkey performed a frenzied, daring trapeze act.
Girish Shambu's review equates the four segements of the film with the four stages of life in the Hindu, Vedic tradition.
Apparently, in 1957, Rossellini was invited by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to make a documentary about India in order to boost the Indian Films Division, and this was the result.
Though married to Ingrid Bergman, he had a torrid affair with Sonali Das Gupta, a screenwriter, who was helping develop vignettes for the film.
Given the climate of the 1950s this led to a huge scandal in both Hollywood and India. Nehru had to ask Rossellini to leave. He married Sonali in 1957 and adopted her young son, Gil Rossellini (born October 23, 1956). Rossellini and Sonali had a daughter together - Raffaella Rossellini (born 1958).
No word on whether or not she too became an actress.