Forster's "sad, strange irony" about parents and children is not lost on Satyajit Ray, the thoroughgoing education can only expand once the boy is an orphaned adolescent with miniature globe in hand. The Pather Panchali train is now filmed from the inside as the opening credits dissolve to a chugging view of Benares ("a nice place except for the monkeys"), the movement is promptly picked up in a lateral track of families bathing on the margins of the Ganges. Kids dash through narrow streets adorned with line drawings of majestic elephants, among them is 10-year-old Apu (Pinaki Sengupta), who later watches his father (Kanu Banerjee) reciting scripture until he's distracted by a showboating weightlifter. Feverish in bed, the writer-turned-cleric languishes against a background of fireworks and sparklers (Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid); suddenly widowed, his wife (Karuna Banerjee) moves to her uncle's village with increasingly restless son in tow. Priesthood is not for the lad (surely Buñuel approved of the vacant temple occupied by itchy apes), knowledge meanwhile is such a joyous rush to the burgeoning mind that a poem read aloud lights up an entire classroom. The camera finds Apu asleep over an open book, dollies into a lantern's flame then back out and there he is in his teenage years (Smaran Ghosal), ready for a scholarship in Calcutta. The youth shuttling from backwater to university might be the filmmaker suspended between roughness and polish, yet Ray understands that this is really the mother's story—Karuna Banerjee's solitude and strength as her boy ambles home from the railroad station were scarcely forgotten by Linklater. A lesson in life is a lesson in cinema, departing souls are visualized as startled birds in flight and fireflies dimming at dusk. ("Euphemism," the professor defines, "is stating a disagreeable fact in an agreeable manner.") Apu's decision at the close is less escape than inexorable growth pang, just around the bend is adulthood. Cinematography by Subrata Mitra. With Santi Gupta, Ramani Sengupta, and Subodh Ganguli. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce