Thursday, May 25, 2017

The River

Although The River (1951; dir. Jean Renoir) was filmed entirely on location, in color, in India, an unusual feat for the time, the problems of the British family at its center have little to do with India. The film follows the activities of family members and the fascination of three young women with a wounded war veteran who has come to live with his cousin. We see many scenes of Indian life, of workers carrying bundles of the Ute processed in a nearby factory, of people going about their daily business, of festivals and celebrations. But these are more a backdrop than they are contributing factors to the British family. Renoir moves back and forth among various family members almost with dispassion, yet as the film moves forward the humanness of its characters, and his sympathy for them, grows increasingly apparent.

We must give artistic films the benefit of their own premises. This is early post-colonial India. The family apparently lives in easy harmony with its Indian neighbors. They still enjoy certain imperial benefits and privilege. But their world is changing, and they have adopted or absorbed certain Indian values and beliefs. A nearby British man, married to an Indian woman now dead, is the father of a half-Indian girl educated in British schools who has decided to live in India as an Indian woman. The British family members, especially the children, appear to see no Other in the Indian Other—there is no visible wall between them—though it may be more visible to the Indians themselves. The family members have also lost some of their distinctive British character—though they are still distinctively British. An Indian governess and a guard help manage daily affairs of the family. The father works, and the mother is apparently always in the process of bearing children—she has five daughters and a son and is pregnant with a sixth child. She is a literal symbol of fecundity, or birth and rebirth, but she is more significantly a mother, a woman, a human being.

Although Renoir strives to portray India with accuracy and detail, he does so from a western point of view. He needs the British family to serve as his mediator. He tells their story, after all. Without them, what story would he know to tell?

The film flows with a strangely ritualistic, spiritual rhythm. Even as one child dies, another is born. The river and its symbolism of continuity and rebirth flows on. This film evokes emotion and human understanding without sentimentality.

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