Pather Panchali ★★★★½

It's not surprising to me that Satyajit Ray's humanist classic is as stunning as reputed; what did surprise me was how often it reminded me of American films like those of Frank Borzage and William Wyler, those that take the everyday lives of people seriously, and treat them as inherently dramatic and interesting. Ray drew from Italian neorealism as an inspiration, which seems logical given the gravity and tragedy of the troubled lives examined here, but whereas those films can seem fatalistic and grim, Pather Panchali is genuinely beautiful, sensitive, poetic -- its black & white photography singing out with such vibrancy and depth you'd swear you were bearing witness directly to everything you're seeing, which is also how the rich catalog of moments, the accumulated pathos of the storytelling, takes residence in your mind and memory. Nothing you can say about it feels sufficiently poetic; there's beauty everywhere, but no sense of beautification of poverty. The characters are universally deep and well-drawn; Apu himself is less an Antoine Doinel than an audience vessel through which the curiosities, sadnesses, fears, weird unexpected miracles of life come careening toward us. Several scenes in this are as haunting as any I've ever seen -- the storm in particular -- and the tendency of the world to continue relentlessly moving at our most humiliating or debilitating moments has never been so sickeningly well captured.

I truly don't mean to insert myself into a film like this by asserting that it's somehow as much about anyone, therefore "me," as it is about its Indian characters, or about India itself, I mean only to point out how universal it is as a filmed paean to growing up within a flawed, frayed family unit. Because there's another sense in which it could come from no other time or place. Karuna Banerjee's face, though, taking the unfolding darkness overwhelming her life until she completely breaks? That is irreducible, creating a kind of empathy and clarity that's possible in no other medium, and that is what cinema is about.