Posts Tagged 1960s
Fascism is born in the mind. We live secure in the knowledge that such minds collectively form little more than insignificant minorities in contemporary Western societies – but how much of that knowledge is based upon material fact, and how much is self-delusion? The capacity for bigotry exists somewhere within us all. And although in most cases it lies dormant (or at least translucent enough to be wilfully ignored), such volcanoes of devolution may not need the strongest of catalysts to awaken from their respective slumbers. After all, for most the delineation between normality and brutality will remain forever untested. Could it be, then, that our moral boundaries are more precarious than we’d like to believe?
Juraj Herz’s The Cremator dives head-first into the degenerative psyche of one Karl Kopfrkingl – an eccentric, somewhat awkward bourgeois fantasist who lives for social advancement. This oily, rotund character rigidly maintains his aura of respectability, priding himself on his familial and professional roles (both, for him, are fundamental status symbols). In terms of the former, our protagonist appears nigh-on faultless: the patriarch of an immaculately nuclear household, his only visible “flaw” (in Czechoslovakia c. 1938) is an overly-effeminate son and heir. And with regards to the professional, few are likely to relish their careers as much as this eponymous cremator, who zealously forges fantastical links between his own incineration of the dead and the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama in a sincere attempt to garner validation for his work. Unfortunately for Kopfrkingl, society is slow on the uptake when it comes to the self-perceived benevolence of his undertakings, leaving him with an inferiority complex that he’ll do anything (anything) to conquer.
Bulging at the seams with its director’s visual flair, The Cremator‘s primary intent is to disorientate the viewer into incertitude. Sharp, angular compositions; quasi-abstract montages; a random deployment of fish-eye lenses; extreme close-ups that dissect and distort the human body – all contrive to impair our comprehension of an otherwise straightforward narrative. Herz’s most cunning tactic finds him cannily abusing the audience’s trust in the integrity of the audio-visual relationship through his editing: by frequently resting his camera upon Kopfrkingl’s face (as the character espouses the garrulous monologues that so pervade the film), the director lures us into a misappropriated understanding of on-screen action. On certain, unpredictable instances however, the camera zooms out to reveal a backdrop which deliberately contradicts that of the preceding shot. Thus, the dialogue continuity enacted by the protagonist is deftly exposed as an illusive device that unsettlingly conceals scene-to-scene transitions, quietly disembowelling our awareness of space and time.
Such strategies prove emblematic of the director’s diegetic formation, conceived as a dynamic duplicate of the paranoia-inducing frameworks that one more commonly associates with the horror genre. And indeed, in many respects the gruesome content of the film lends credence to his designs: given its portrayal of Nazism’s inevitable onset and the consequent upending of a tenuous national order, The Cremator effectively invites murder and mayhem into its boudoir. Less expected, though, is the macabre humour that incises its way throughout the proceedings, perplexingly undercutting the emotional intensity of the drama at hand. Kopfrkingl is riddled with bizarre quirks and idiosyncrasies – consider his casual insistence upon removing cigarettes from others’ mouths, or the wryly comical over-ardour with which he discusses his “Temple of Death”, or especially his ritualised hair-combing procedure, in which he caresses the heads of his corpses before brushing his own thinning locks – and Herz doesn’t waste the opportunity to take potshots at those of his ilk. It’s soon discovered that this ‘perfect’ family man acquiesces to his adulterous impulses with laughably ordered regularity (“only on the first Thursday of the month!”); his fastidious observance of socially-sanctioned morality a mere ruse for the simmering amorality within.
Equal parts drama, horror and satire, Herz’s anxious synthesis of tones builds – alongside his stylistic erraticism – the backbone of a brazenly eclectic approach to his material. The director exploits this schizophrenic modus operandi for two immediate ends: first, to imaginatively mould his deranged protagonist’s fragmentary perspectives into a subjective narrative of insightful vigour; and second, to goad the viewer outside of his/her standardized comfort zone until they’re assailable enough to be ambushed by The Cremator‘s disturbed nucleus. This core displays an aggressively historical bent, with the film’s integration of its late-1930s political context giving rise to the condemnation, not to mention the allegories (the Third Reich can be substituted for any other totalitarian state), that one would envisage from so curious a premise. With these reference points in mind, Herz’s high-octane tributes to the German expressionism of yore play exequially, striking purposefully and powerfully at the cultural magnitude of all that was lost following Hitler’s rapid, ruthless ascendancy.
Of course, Herz’s bereavements go well beyond the artistic; his plot acting as an eerie pre-emptor of the human tolls that would eventually become synonymous with National Socialism in practice. The director’s shrewdest study however, concerns that more intrinsic element within the ideology’s (and, later, the regime’s) rise: the gaping void of compassion. We realise early on that Kopfrkingl is a morally-deficient hypocrite, but his idealistic fluidity nonetheless startles with its accelerated descent into opportunistic savagery. Notice, for example, the slippery transience of his patriotism: initially identifying himself as “purely Czech”, he then discovers “a drop of German blood” before allowing himself to be cast as a fully-fledged Übermenschen. It’s this final transformation which initiates a similarly mercurial attitude to his own family (all of whom have been “tainted” by his wife’s Jewish heritage), pointing the way towards a Final Solution with its contemptuous dismissal and subsequent destruction of these purest of human relationships.
Whilst nourishing a culture of audience bewilderment, The Cremator‘s surface flair dualistically invents a cinematic nightmare through its visual rendering of Kopfrkingl’s psychosis. Herz exploits his myriad of techniques to create an acute psychological proximity to his deranged antihero; the intimacy marking the disquieting pith of his thesis: the style in itself stupefies, but it’s the exposition of the internal hysteria which horrifies. The director swims deep into Kopfrkingl’s troubled pneuma, bringing each of the character’s malevolent ailments to the fore for audience scrutiny (one shouldn’t be surprised when confronting a mirror image or few). Understandably, the natural effect of such devotion is to inhibit character development elsewhere. But therein lies the strength of Herz’s achievement, for Kopfrkingl’s inundation of the narrative itself becomes a commentary on the subservience accorded to and extracted by the tyrannical lunatics of past and present – the incubus being, of course, that the character is not so much a lunatic as he is a capitalist everyman and overeager conformist. As the director lurches towards his frenzied finale, the reduction of human life to anonymous archetypes fails to diminish the harrowing implications of the injustices on-screen. We need not know people to comprehend the impact of their suffering. As Herz so persuasively argues beneath the hysterics: knowledge is overrated, and empathy is everything.
Perhaps the film’s most poignant ongoing thread is the conspicuous lack of a female presence to counter the fascistic manoeuvrings of the men. Kopfrkingl’s soliloquies saturate the narrative with his pseudo-tender male chauvinism, objectifying all women (only when viewed through the prism of sexual desire can they be granted the gift of speech) and relegating their voices to the non-diegetic orchestrations of the soundtrack. Composer Zdenek Liska imaginatively moulds the sounds and strains of this feminine oppression into choral harmonies of cherubic splendour – exalting the female voice as a communicative medium of unparalleled ethereality. As our protagonist sets about extinguishing this vital life-force with methodical precision then, the absurdities of the director’s vision gradually fade away to leave only the excruciating barbarity that they once sheltered. The Cremator thus bares its teeth as a tale of loss. A loss of values, a loss of integrity, and finally – most devastatingly – a loss of humanity: that virtue which needs to be upheld against all odds. In Juraj Herz’s spiritual replication of the Nazi terror, one man’s failure to do so allows the horrifying to swiftly, effectively morph into the tragic. And as Kopfrkingl’s numerous descendants continue to remind us, that tragedy very much remains an ongoing reality.
Has the desire to transgress ever been as giddily infectious as it is in Daisies (1966)? Though constructed in a manner that stubbornly defies all forms of categorisation, Věra Chytilová’s cinematic acid trip is inseparable from its context: a Czechoslovak “New Wave” feature whose title anticipates Flower Power and whose content foretells the Prague Spring, this eerily prescient film is practically a revolution unto itself. A brisk, seventy-minute shot to the senses that counters the counterculture with its anarchic bravado, Daisies teems to the brim with a psychedelic mêlée of absurdism, Dadaism and nihilism. Whether or not the director would care for such heady philosophies is another matter altogether, for the bulk of the film’s tone is informed by a swaggering rambunctiousness that cogently eulogises the sheer joy of rebellion. It’s this blissful irreverence which thereby reveals itself as the name of Chytilová’s game – and it’s a game in which she has few, if any peers.
Plot and characterisation are but peripheral concepts in this most capricious of satires. Two young women – the exact status of their relationship remains unclear – decide on a whim to go “bad”, and accordingly proceed to run riot in the society to which they had previously subscribed. Daisies‘ shrewd trump card is to have Chytilová running riot alongside them, with both the director and her protagonists thus working in tandem to recreate the rapture of liberation from their respective orders. As the film’s insouciant duo upend and overturn social codes and conventions, Chytilová entirely rescinds the rules of narrative filmmaking, instead choosing to illustrate her gifts as a radical aesthetician. Formal eccentricities are abound: rapid-fire jump-cuts and photomontages, flagrant discrepancies in film stock, and an erratic use of colour filters all serve to electrify her canvas – doing little to unite the disconnected (though interrelated) scenarios, but nonetheless intriguing the viewer enough to function as some sort of visual glue that coagulates the film (Chytilová unsurprisingly revels in the paradox). In Daisies‘ most startling setpiece, the director redefines her spacial parameters, splicing the actors with their settings and embedding them into a cinematic collage that astonishingly renders both foreground and background impotent – the helpless victims of a cubist assault upon the frame.
Any attempts to locate substance in this impenetrably florid exercise are audaciously repelled by the filmmaker’s commitment to ambiguity. In a rare, coherent piece of dialogue, one of the girls tellingly enquires: “Why do they say ‘I love you’? Why don’t they say, for example, ‘egg’?” By querying the sanctity of such an emotionally-loaded phrase, she subliminally points towards an endemic breakdown in everyday communication (if “I love you” has no meaning then what does?) – a concern that Chytilová upholds by exalting action over words and supplanting spoken language with film language. But therein lies the key to the text, for as nonsensical as Daisies aspires to be, its avant-garde farce is not beyond comprehension; fragments of a political agenda are readily discernible upon overcoming and interpreting its visual ingenuity. What, for example, does one make of a character’s decision to slice up phallic food items with a pair of scissors whilst a pining lover professes his devotion down the phone? Or how does one construe the ritual exploitation and subsequent repudiation of all potential “sugar daddies”? Resistant though the film may (quite rightly) be towards feminist labelling – why should all female-centric efforts with a woman behind the camera be instantly suspected as such? – it nevertheless soars as an exhilarating celebration of femininity itself. How refreshing a subversion it is to witness women embracing their bodies, minds and spirits in such reckless abandon, with only the most superficial of needs for those creatures that we know as “men”.
And yet, both director and audience are acutely aware that such indulgences cannot last. Certainly not in a state where citizenship and obedience take precedence over gender and sexuality. Perhaps Daisies‘ sole instance of sincere profundity resides in a sequence that maps the women’s reactions to society’s silent immobilisation of their rebellion: as the males that they challenge now learn to neutralise their delinquency with blanket disregard, our heroines’ ensuing confusion exposes the fundamental need for attention that predicates a successful insurgency. In refusing those needs, the social order unmasks itself as a sterile leviathan; its mundane surfaces an inadequate disguise for the formidable foe which quashes resistance with little hesitation. Surely, sadly, it is naïve to expect anything but. The incendiary merit of Chytilová’s despondent finale – where the “bad girls” offer up a vain appeasement by going “good”, only to then get crushed anyway – derives its weight from the opening montage that it mirrors: a ragged chassé between shots of a turning flywheel and scenes of man-made destruction; the implication of cyclical carnage and the futility of revolutions colouring the picture from its outset.
Within these stark bookends however, the director scribes a manifesto whose guiding principle is exemplified by Daisies‘ most gleeful escapade: a whimsical jaunt in a nightclub, where our beloved twosome throw caution to the wind and replicate the headlining act by dancing and drinking to their hearts’ contents – much to the distaste of their bourgeois comrades. The joie de vivre of partaking in this caper is a welcome contagion that uncovers the film’s deepest, most revelatory tenets by (typically) asking a series of questions. Is it more worthwhile to be a passive observer who engages with society, or an active participant who engages with life? Would we rather exist for a century as unquestioning conformists, or risk an early death by living but for a few brief minutes? For all Chytilová’s glorious abstractions and cryptograms, the mystery of where her film’s allegiance lies is not really a mystery at all – betrayed during Daisies‘s runtime by the iconoclastic potency of her vision, her immortal, concluding tribute merely adds icing to the cake:
Dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.
Wearing its melodrama firmly on its sleeve, The Cloud-Capped Star takes aim at the pre-eminent cornerstone of Bengali life – the dreaded and revered family unit – and subsequently proceeds to chew it up and spit it out with unbridled venom. Resting his gaze upon the trials and tribulations of a relatively bourgeois home in post-Partition Kolkata, director Ritwik Ghatak unearths only desolation, degradation and despair. His tale is woefully familiar: a self-sacrificial heroine, too benevolent for the unforgiving world that so spitefully disregards her, suffers an elongated decline into anonymity. But Ghatak’s work is suffused with a generosity in spirit and an ingenuity in technique which aggrandises an otherwise predictable tragedy; the film ultimately attaining a stratum of effusive spiritualism that’s singular in essence and breathtaking in experience. Our characters’ various states of dysphoria thus find themselves illuminated by humanistic brushstrokes which tactfully balance empathy alongside the director’s acuminous critiques. Star‘s compendium of politics, psychology and passion consequently scales depths of feeling that belies its parentage, gradually filtering its genre’s embellishments before culminating in a conclusion that marks an apex in exorbitant realism.
With a narrative founded upon simplicity, Ghatak offers up a parade of types – fickle fiancé, superficial sister, artistic (read: lazy) brother, hapless father, bitch mother from Hell – and uses them to repudiate the standardised deference to the family (although the pessimistic depictions of the film’s peripheral characters quite probably extends the grievance towards society as a whole). His veneration of Nita (our ever-suffering protagonist) as some sort of downtrodden saint is thus contrasted with the reduction of her relatives’ personalities to digestible traits: avaricious, self-absorbed, even hateful. Whilst Star‘s early scenes establish an aura of playfulness and warmth in these familial interactions, Ghatak’s plotting is swift in exposing the callous heart of a desperately unhappy home: consider how the recurrent bickering of the parents, initially played for comedic value, finds itself tinged with genuine contempt as the film progresses; or how the amoral vanity of the sister eventually results in the collapse of the film’s key relationship. Constantly harassed by the feuding, rapacious clan that raised her, Nita finds herself driven into the misery of total subjugation; deluded by a misplaced obligation to a group of individuals intent solely upon devouring her already-overstretched income.
Though seething with anger at the traditions that dictate subservience to a potentially detrimental institution, the director acknowledges that shared familial bonds are indubitably natural – and thus, the problem confronting our protagonist is that of escaping her own nature; the issue compounded by the contradictions and limitations of the society in which she lives. In one of the film’s bittersweet ironies, it’s Nita’s fellow females – the permanently-embittered mother and the jealous sister with their grossly overinflated senses of entitlement – who most vigorously wield the axe of the patriarchy against her. Indeed, the only characters who appear to offer genuine concern for her debilitating plight prove to be her father and elder brother – theoretically the film’s two foremost exemplars of male dominance. Ghatak’s conception of the patriarchal order is loaded with similar subversions, and one notes that not one of the men in Nita’s life conforms to our expectations of alpha masculinity. The qualities that unite these would-be patriarchs instead reveal themselves to be cowardice and weakness, thereby resulting in a glaring inability to head so unsettled a household. It’s accordingly left to Nita to unwillingly emerge as the breadwinner in a full-time, thankless role that extinguishes her private desires (ideals and sentiments are still very much a luxury in so precarious a middle class) whilst leaving her utterly at the mercy of an unsympathetic public domain. She abnegates out of ingrained beliefs in the power of duty and devotion (“We all love each other, but we shy from saying so”), but these beliefs will come to be ruthlessly dismissed as deceitful fallacies. Amidst this mishmash of personal and collective needs, Ghatak’s message resounds loud and clear: men are merely the faces of a system that’s incapacitated without the support of women like Nita – women who exist in the background, suffering silently, invisibly.
Just as inescapable as our heroine’s spiritual incarceration is the technical flair of our director, fearless in the exploration of his creative potential. Ghatak’s stylistic idiosyncrasies embolden the film, at times courting hagiography (low-angle shots during unwanted epiphanies immortalise Nita as a goddess in turmoil) whilst in other instances repelling it (at her lowest ebbs, she finds herself shrouded in the darkness of shadows – a tactic whose effect is heightened when recalling that one of Star‘s most noteworthy elements is its astounding depth of field). The director appears as adept when wallowing in the rich pastoralism of the Bengal landscape as he does when interrogating the disordered urbania of a developing metropolis. Thus, picturesque long shots contrast with near avant-garde flourishes, the oscillations in style alluding towards a bifurcated crisis that extends beyond Nita’s increasing hysteria. The clues to this turmoil’s source lie in Ghatak’s cluttered soundscapes, themselves roaming the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic space: the frenzied amalgam of drums and sitars; the howling horns of passing trains; the unsettling cracks of a not-distant whip; and always, always the mumblings of a vibrant, restless society. The director aurally embeds his protagonist’s suffering into the wider narrative of his divided homeland and, in his most inspired move, borrows from Bengal’s rich musical heritage to reinforce the point: Star explodes into cathartic relief when brother and sister engage in a sorrowful rendition of a poem by the region’s cultural hero, Rabindranath Tagore, a moment that completely upends contemporary understandings of music in Indian cinema. Ghatak’s manoeuvres posit the film as some sort of modernist Bengali folk opera; his measured deployment of temporal ellipses allowing his politicised sentiments to engulf the audience much like one of the torrid cyclones that so frequently batter his motherland’s terrain. The director’s pronouncements on Partition and its traumas – infiltrating and corrupting even the most sacred of human relationships – could not be more apparent. Behind this assessment however, there lies a tribute to the resilience of a sequestered populace, clinging to their dream of eventual unity. Nevertheless, as Ghatak’s harrowing coda so poignantly realises, there are certain dreams which simply cannot be.
Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetics of Hunger – a 1965 essay which attempts to explicate the Cinema Novo – reads like a convoluted mass of allegations, opacities and rhetoric (none of which are necessarily without substance). Somewhere within these imbroglios however, one stumbles upon an assertion that’s especially jarring:
We, makers of those ugly and sad films, those shouted and desperate films where reason does not always speak in the loudest voice, we know that hunger will not be cured by the cabinet’s formulations and that Technicolor patches do not hide, but only worsen, hunger’s tumours. Thus, only a culture of hunger, drenched in its own structures, can take a qualitative leap. And the noblest cultural manifestation of hunger is violence.
Black God, White Devil (Rocha’s directorial effort from the preceding year) is borne of hunger: a hunger to represent the marginalised, a hunger to empower the disenfranchised, and a hunger for a new, incendiary film language to articulate such grievances. Accordingly, the film seethes with violence; a ravenous cine-beast whose furious kineticism lashes wildly against an entire panorama of antiquated institutions and ruthless oppressors. From Church to state, wealthy landowners to penniless bandits, no one is spared the full brunt of the director’s polemical tirades and, as we soon discover, no one deserves to be. Predicated by an infectious belief in the transformative potential of the cinema (where governments fail, it will succeed), Rocha’s unwavering commitment to the plight of the impoverished reveals itself to be as estimable as it is necessary.
In response to those pestiferous “Technicolor patches” that he so decries, the director crafts a realist phantasm that rips itself asunder with a series of stubbornly-defined oppositions. The crisp, high-contrast monochromes of his visuals act as deliberate extensions of his textual antinomies: spiritualism vs. secularism; decadence vs. poverty; order vs. chaos. Simplistic they may well be, but they allow Rocha to craft an eviscerating, multi-pronged attack upon man’s ineptitude in dealing with destitution that’s designed to mould the viewer’s innate passivity into revolutionary activity. The subsequent profile of humanity which emerges is disheartening to say the least: all escape routes available to the fugitive farmers at his narrative’s heart will lead only to exploitation – both within accepted civilisation as well as outside of it.
As his title’s English translation suggests however, Rocha brazenly resists the most basic opposition of them all. The eternal conflict between good and evil is rendered a far-flung myth in his portrait of moral disarray – a world in which everyone, regardless of class distinctions, succumbs to primitivism. Whilst one would expect the quasi-Marxist Rocha to cast a critical gaze upon members of the bourgeoisie and the clergy, he remains equally unsparing when examining his more economically-beleaguered characters. No one escapes untainted from the pessimism that envelops this canvas, though the director is astute enough to ask all the pertinent questions: his peasantry is hapless (why?), naïve (why??) and uneducated (why???). Without the basic tools necessary to capacitate themselves, how can one expect them to negotiate – let alone challenge – the repressive structures of a disordered and rampageous society? Hunger thus devolves into greed – as poisonous a desire as ever there was – and it’s this that triggers the undoing of nearly all of the text’s misguided individuals. In Rocha’s hands, the concept of famine fleetly expands beyond the scarcity of food and burgeons into a pathological dearth of feeling.
Though devised as a cinematic manifesto, Black God ends up sourcing its potency from much more than its director’s ardent ideological convictions. The pain of historical memory weighs down upon the film, with frequent references to the massacres, messiahs and marauders of the past submerging the viewer in the distinct local history of the Brazilian sertão. Rocha thus draws an established link between the extreme paucity of this vast, barren landscape and the frantic fanaticism that such despair engenders (culminating as it does with the reign of the cangaço). The subsequent breakdown in law and order serves only to further enervate the underclasses, the group that remains most susceptible to changes initiated elsewhere within (or outside) the social hierarchy. The director observes all this with palpable anger, layering despondence upon futility as he weaves a canvas that’s informed by a single guiding principle: to avoid the mistakes of yesteryear.
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Rocha’s pièce de résistance – the stimulus which allows his film to generate so electrifying an impact – is neither his socio-political agenda nor his historical knowledge, but his ferocious grasp of style. Orchestrated gunshots litter his soundtrack alongside traditional folk music (the latter conceived as oral storytelling to supplement his narrative), causing his action to unfold as something of a brutal filmic ballad. A spectacular array of compositions and setpieces then expose the raw power of the cinematic image: from the close-ups of rotting carcasses that open the film, to the dumbfounding scene in which a Christian cross is painted onto a human head using a murdered newborn’s still-warm blood, Black God reads like a photo album of poverty devolving into its most harrowing extremes. Meanwhile, Rocha deftly appropriates the language of the American western – the stark, desolate vistas of the sertão that so dominate his imagery surely functioning as a wry subversion of Monument Valley’s near-fetishisation; the ugly, debilitated stepbrother to the grand old Fordian myth. The director’s decision to shroud his characters in all this de-glorified emptiness is integrated into an overarching scheme that’s designed to replicate guerilla warfare within the cinema: the elongated lulls and silences of his wastelands are shattered by the thundering velocity of Eisensteinian montages that startle with their bloody severity. And therein lies the secret of Rocha’s mutinous art, for the relationship between awareness (as through his landscapes) and action (as compelled by his editing) is key to his solution. As Black God lapses into mayhem for one last time during its chaotic finale, there’s little doubt that the director understands the Sisyphean odyssey that his pitiful individuals have to confront on all-too regular a basis. But with a camera in the hand and an idea in the head, he evidently hopes to do so much more than simply shine a light upon their suffering – Rocha wishes to trigger an uprising within the cinema itself. For him, and perhaps even for us, the revolution will begin here.
A colourless, classical sculpture appears on screen in close-up. Shaped like a head, faintly visible contours reveal the most basic of facial features amidst its blankness. A shrill, orchestral arrangement disturbs the peace, instantly spawning a sense of unease; the discernible jitters of the handheld camera doing little to alleviate the tension. Suddenly, those foreboding musical strains morph into the more traditional, comforting sounds of sitars and sarods and, out of nowhere, the blank model acquires a visage. Once faint contours now become boldly delineated, though the most notable revision is the presence of a perturbing third eye. Alas, it appears that this is Kali – the feared and revered Hindu goddess. Though the now charming score encourages us to view her amicably, her claustrophobically direct glare into her audience nonetheless induces anxiety. Suddenly (again), the baritone howls of a distant organ jolt the soundscape and Kali morphs once more. Now embellished with shimmering jewellery and ornate headgear, the newly-decorated idol maintains her inscrutable, unsettling glare. The string accompaniment is augmented synchronously; the rhythmic, percussive chants of thundering tabla frenzying the aural experience until the music collapses from its own velocity and devolves into the sound of voluminous bell-ringing. Finally, we’re pulled away from Kali’s gaze and obliged to view her in a high-angle shot that exposes the full extent of her luxurious aureola (not to mention her intimidating ten-armed body). The frame subsequently dissolves as the camera zooms out, revealing both the temple that houses her and the (numerous) subjects that worship her. Meanwhile, those frenzied tabla return to the soundtrack, this time diegetically as musicians and dancers come to dominate the foreground, intensifying the festive atmosphere.
Swiftly, we switch to a low-angled (reverential?) shot of a well-groomed male elder, solemn in his prayers, before switching again to Kali – the camera zooming out to reveal her as the recipient of the man’s piety; the scene concluding as he lowers onto his knees and places his head on the ground in deference. This quasi-spiritual interlude finds itself abruptly replaced as the camera once again takes us outside the temple, tracking past the musicians as it makes its way towards a ritual slaughter. A knife is raised in the air, and then… CUT: to the patriarch of the previous scene, observing the action in silence; CUT: to the tabla again, each drum banged ever more furiously; CUT: to the moment of the strike, the suspended knife now accelerating downwards; and CUT: to fireworks in the night sky, the sound of multiple explosions substituting for the unheard cries of the mammalian victim. We rest temporarily upon the affectionate interactions of a young family enjoying the pyrotechnical extravaganza, only to revert back to Kali’s fate mere seconds later. Now we find her entire form carried along by worshippers in a mind-boggling procession; long shots highlighting the extraordinary numbers involved in the journey. The celebration ends abruptly however, as before we know it the goddess is pushed into a river – the sequence’s final shot lingering upon her inexpressive face as she’s compelled to succumb to the forces of nature.
In an introduction that lasts little over five minutes, Satyajit Ray establishes the principle concerns of Devi with consummate precision. Though the film will resist another outpouring so ebullient until its wrenching finale, the dynamism behind this early montage ably lays down the foundations upon which the director’s otherwise meditative narrative rests. As the gradual beautification of that initial, blank sculpture suggests, Devi marks an investigation into the construction and destruction of identity – specifically when applied to females and deities. Ray flaunts his credentials as a secular pro-feminist with laudable bravado, castigating the socially-sanctioned moulding of women into man-made idealisations whilst condemning the overwhelming pre-eminence of blind religious devotion in contemporary Bengal (the film unfolds in the 19th-century, but its setting within a relatively isolated rural estate renders it unavoidably atemporal). Somewhat expectedly then, the male elder of the prologue turns out to be a wealthy landowner – a figurehead used by the director to highlight the entrenchment of patriarchal subservience in a society obtusely hung up on outmoded praxes; the man’s gender and his visible affluence guaranteeing him a dangerous degree of influence in local affairs. Thus, when said patriarch decides that his beloved daughter-in-law, Doya, is actually the human reincarnate of the prologue’s Kali (following a “vision” that’s brilliantly executed to accentuate the malevolently ethereal elements within spirituality), both his relatives and his subjects lapse into unquestioning acceptance of his apparition. Ray subsequently forges a socio-religious critique that politicises his text in a manner that invites comparisons with his outspoken Marxist contemporaries in the world of Bengali cinema, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. At its most elementary level, Devi functions as a societal microcosm, a staunchly left-wing perspective of power in action: concentrated within the hands of the privileged few, and imposed upon the disenfranchised masses who acquiesce in the name of supernatural delusions. Of course, educated dissenters exist, in this instance the patriarch’s son, Uma (Doya’s husband), whose enlightened intellectualism appears conceived to indulge the inevitable conflict between tradition and modernity – though the elephantine weight of the former remains nigh-on impossible to repel. As Uma confronts his father with the assertion that he’s “going mad”, the old man responds by invoking his heritage and reciting an ancient Sanskrit poem whose rigid orthodoxy proves as chilling as it does foreboding:
No one is worthier of respect than a father,
If you would honour the gods, honour your father,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the Sun,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the ocean,
The paternal spirit encompasses heaven and earth…
And yet, despite the potency of Ray’s criticisms, Devi‘s foremost attribute is its sensitivity. There’s little doubt as to where the director’s allegiance lies in the clash of old and new, but for narrative purposes he nonetheless ensconces himself firmly within the expanses of grey between the opposing viewpoints. His is a cinematic parable that offers a judicious caution: when consumed by our fixation with the desires of ‘higher’ beings, we risk losing sight of the human beings whose needs are surely more pressing – and Devi makes a stern point of demonstrating its commitment to the latter. Though his subtextual web engrossingly interweaves fanaticism and mysticism alongside feminism and rationalism (alongside a surprising acknowledgement of the colonial question), Ray’s approach is marked by observational tranquility in the face of increasingly tumultuous sentiments (one recalls the quiet affection shared by Doya and Uma during the fireworks of the opening sequence), and in doing so he scythes right to the emotive core of his variegated drama. Thus, the patriarch’s vision is treated not with contempt or scrutiny, but with unassuming respect while it’s presented to the viewer as a harrowing epiphany – and so it follows that his insistence upon Doya’s deification is grounded in a genuine belief in the reality of his metaphysical experience. Noting the character’s absence of malice and the sincere presence of love for those whose worlds he’s upending, Ray refuses to damn his father figure, instead channelling his anger towards a system which grants such individuals their immense leverage in the lives of others whilst concurrently disenfranchising those that deviate from the accepted figures of power: namely the object of the father’s worship herself, Doya. Burdened with not only her divinity but also the femininity which forces her subjugation, the film’s titular “goddess” tellingly utters the fewest words of all the film’s leads – and her silence is deafening. Denied access to the education that empowers her husband, Doya finds herself a helpless victim of dogmatic hypocrisy; her precarious fate completely at the mercy of the film’s idealistic males. Naturally, there can be only one conclusion from thereon out. And so it is that as the limitations of religious belief make themselves sorely announced during Devi‘s tragic finale, the everlasting image of the prologue’s drowning goddess assumes a resonance that reverberates throughout the ages.