Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955). The debut feature from Bengali director Satyajit Ray is a marvel of deep empathy and refined visual storytelling. Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali focuses on the struggles of a rural family living in poverty in the nineteen-tens. Ray adeptly captures the breadth of the challenge the family faces, largely through the perspective of its two children, Durga (Runki Banerjee when the character is a child, and then Uma Dasgupta when she moves into her teen-aged years) and Apu (Aubir Banerjee). Without shortchanging the grim realities of an existence on the edge of the most basic solvency, Ray finds moments of grace in the kids’ fascination with the smaller treasures of life. Eventually, tragedy intrudes, and Ray’s approach allows the resulting sorrow to feel narratively and thematically proper rather than harshly exploitative. Aligned with Italian neorealism, Pather Panchali is especially impressive because it was crafted by relative novices, including most of the actors, miracle-working cinematographer Subrata Mitra, and Ray himself. The film is a compelling testimony to the value in democratizing access to the tools of cinematic art.
Pocketful of Miracles (Frank Capra, 1961). The final feature from storied director Frank Capra exhibits a surprising deftness given the length of his career’s tooth at the time. It might have helped that Capra had already take a pass at roughly the same material once before. Pocketful of Miracles is based on the Damon Runyon story Madame La Gimp, which Capra had previously adapted for the screen in the the 1933 comedy Lady for a Day. The story centers on a destitute woman named Apple Annie (Bette Davis) who sells fruit on the street while presiding over a small crew of fellow small-scale hustlers and panhandlers. Her wares are viewed as the ultimate good luck charm by local gangster Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford), who is on the cusp of securing a major alliance as Prohibition falls. To keep Annie happy — and those lucky apples coming — Dave has to help orchestra a ruse upon the occasion of a visit by Annie’s daughter, Louise (Ann-Margret, in her first film role). Capra structures the film like an farce, though one that never spin off into frenetic tomfoolery. With a crispness to the visuals and the narrative, Capra keeps the proceedings grounded in emotion and smartly leans on the skilled cast. This is one of the better performances I’ve seen from Ford, and there are fine supporting turns from Edward Everett Horton and Peter Falk, the latter earning an Oscar nomination, his second in as many years.
Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2018). Last year’s Academy Award winner in the feature documentary category mostly succeeds because of the ways it subverts rules and therefore expectations. On its most basic level, Free Solo follows the quest of Alex Honnold to become the first person to scale El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, with the aid of ropes or other mountaineering support gear. The film marvels at the death-defying feat without ever fully celebrating it, leaving plenty of room for the viewer to draw negative conclusions about Honnold’s choices. Amy Poehler says the movie should be called White Nonsense, and that seems reasonable to me. Co-directors Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture several small, telling moments — such as Honnold’s amusement in filling out a psychological profile questionnaire being stopped dead what he hits the entry that asks about depression — and use them shrewdly and strategically to build a fuller picture of the climber and those around him. The most impactful choice involves the gradual incorporation of Chin and his camera crew into the film’s narrative. They are not simply pointing their camera, but preemptively weighing the guilt and horror they will feel if their footage includes Honnold falling from a dizzying height, sustaining grave injury or death. What could have easily been a rote sports documentary with some stunning nature photography for flavor becomes instead an unexpected modern morality play.