For the latest Criterion releases, the company has restored Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and released producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory’s A Room with a View. Not a bad collection of important arthouse films.
E.M. Forster was a well-respected novelist whose works had mostly been adapted for television until David Lean turned A Passage to India into a movie. Such may have lead the team of Merchant and Ivory to his works, as they also adapted Maurice and Howard’s End into films. Through Forster the team found their most winning on screen adaptations as View and End are the duo’s biggest hits. Indeed, the 1985 film was a huge Oscar sensation at the time and helped introduce the world to Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day Lewis and Julian Sands, while also offering plum roles to veterans like Maggie Dench, Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.
The film starts as Brits Lucy Honeychurch (Carter) and her chaperon Charlotte Bartlett (Smith) check in for a vacation in Florence and find their rooms lacking. Such leads Mr. Emerson (Elliot) and his son George (Sands) to offer to switch rooms. Charlotte thinks this is a leading gesture and refuses, but is eventually talked into it. As their vacation progresses, Lucy finds herself spending more time with George, who is a complicated man, the British version of a James Dean type. Eventually they kiss but vacations have to end, and Lucy has a suitor (Lewis) with an eye to marry her back in England.
For a long time in the eighties and nineties, Merchant/Ivory were seen as an Oscar machine. Films for awards season and for old women, for middlebrow sensibilities. With the passage of time, this is an unfair treatment of these artists, who deserve to be in the Criterion collection. Though there’s nothing challenging about the material, A Room with a View is a charming vehicle that explores a very British sexuality, that is to say a repressed one that springs out in unexpected ways. Is the film not much more than a romantic comedy? Perhaps not, but it’s a detailed one that is involving, and well worth a watch.
Criterion’s release presents the film in widescreen (1.66:1) and in 2.0 surround as befitting its initial release. The film has received a new 4K transfer, and though I found on my television there was some flickering early on, the new transfer is gorgeous, with great detail and great attention to color. Extras are – as to be expected – tasteful. They kick off with “Tought and Passion” (21 min.) which gets Ivory, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts and costume designer John Bright to talk about the making of the film, which gets into the challenges of making a period movie and the film itself. This is a little dry, though it has great anecdotes about the making of the movie, but it’s followed by “The Eternal Yes” (36 min.) which gets actors Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands and Simon Callow to talk about the making of the movie. This was a very important film for all three, and very revealing for two, and they all talk about what this meant for their careers and when it came about in their lives, and how it altered their careers. It’s a great piece. It’s followed by “NBC Nightly News” (4 min.) which offers a profile of Merchant and Ivory, which mostly focuses on the film’s unexpected success. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.
The Apu Trilogy kicks off with Pather Panchali, which shows Apu (played here by Subir Banerjee) as a little boy, and the struggles of his family. They aren’t rich and the father has to go away for long stretches to find work. He’s a poet/playwright and there’s not a lot of call for his artistry, while his family lives in squalor, living partly off the land with sister Durga (Shampa Srivastava) getting in trouble with the neighbors for stealing their fruit. It’s a carefree life, for the most part, though trouble comes when Durga gets sick.
It’s followed by Aparajito, in which a now adolescent Apu (Smaran Ghosal) is doing well in school and is living in the city, though there is trouble at home as his father (Kanu Banerjee) is not well, and the family becomes much smaller. He excels at school, but that means spending more time away from his mom. In the final installment, here titled Apur Sansar, but also known as The World of Apu, Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee), faces marriage, and also death.
Shot on a shoe-string budget, what may be most fascinating for Westerners is a peak into Indian life. The film shows the progress of a country boy adjusting to education and a big city life, it paints a world that may be unknown to westerns, even if the trappings are familiar. Satyajit Ray is known as a great humanist filmmaker and this label rings true as you watch and empathize with this family’s struggle to stay together while also growing. It is a hopeful saga, although one that features a lot of death and despair. It is about growing up and accepting the possibilities. It becomes about life, but where some might compare it to something like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, that doesn’t have the same focus as this as we see characters evolving in more concrete ways. The series is a journey with a strong vision of a boy becoming a man and a father. It’s essential viewing.
Criterion’s release of the trilogy comes after long work repairing the original negative. Once thought completely destroyed, Criterion worked with what remained of the original material, and though flaws are evident throughout (especially, as is often the case, during crossfades) their work here is a miracle. Considering the original elements were thought lost for good, this is a masterpiece of reconstruction. The films are presented in their original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in 1.0 monaural sound.
Extras on Pather Panchali kick off with “A Long Time on the Little Road” which offers an audio transcript of Ray reading his article on making the movie (15 min.). It’s followed by an interview with Soumitra Chatterjee (7 min.) – which was done in 2013, showing how long this project has been in gestation – who plays the adult Apu and was a Ray regular, and talks about the first film exclusively. Shampa Srivastava, who plays Durga is also interviewed (16 min.), as is camera operator Soumendu Roy (13 min.), while composer Ravi Shankar talks about his involvement in the series in Apu-centric clips from documentary The Song of the Little Road (6 min.).
Aparajito offers “The Small Details.” which has film writer Ujjal Chakraborty talking about the film (11 min.), and he goes in depth on some of the cultural signifiers and Ray’s methods. “A Conversation with Satyajit Ray, 1958” (15 min.) excerpts an interview conducted with the director, while “Making The Apu Trilogy” is an video essay by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson (38 min.) that goes in depth on how the film came together and how it was made. Then there’s “The Creative Person” (29 min.) a 1967 documentary on Ray and his working process.
For Apur Sansar, there’s a 15 minute interview with Soumitra Chatterjee (Apu) and costar Sharmila Tagore (who plays his wife Aparna), “The Apu Trilogy: A Closer Look” (44 min.), investigates the filmmaking of the series. There’s also a clip of Ray receiving his honorary Oscar (3 min.), which is given to him by Audrey Hepburn, while finally there’s an in depth look at the restoration process (13 min.), which highlights how miraculous this restoration was.