The child’s delight in discovery is also the novice director’s in a virginal terrain, thus the close-up of a young eyelid playfully pried open early on in Satyajit Ray’s glowingly hardscrabble debut. (The candy peddler is later watched through an opening in a brick wall, a sort of jagged iris shot.) "Good times and bad times" in rural Bengal, the languid drift of the seasons regulates the tempo, a ramshackle courtyard and the dense surrounding woods suggest worlds within worlds. The opposite poles in the poor Brahmin family are the diligent mother "always filled with foreboding" (Karuna Banerjee) and the ancient, heedless Auntie (Chunibala Devi), the father (Kanu Banerjee) is sometimes a priest but mostly "a poet and a playwright" in his own mind. The children meanwhile are on journeys of their own, 10-year-old Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and her little brother Apu (Subir Banerjee) absorb the highs and lows of life with ravenous wonder. Hunger is never far off, but quotidian things give off a mysterious radiance: an urn full of kittens in the corner of the frame, sunlight filtering through trees as a cow is led through a dilapidated gate, a boy’s sudden realization that he might be too old for a toy box. Decrepitly hunched yet perpetually seeking pleasure, Auntie proudly parades a new shawl and is banished from the household; facing extinction with a toothless smile, she might be Yeats’ "Ledaean body bent above a sinking fire," Hou in A Time to Live and a Time to Die remembers the discovery of her corpse. Shot in sequence over a couple of years, the film’s progression is from still-photograph picturalism to Ray’s gradual understanding of flow as central to the cinema. Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn figures in the remarkable monsoon sequence, the daughter succumbs to fever as a trembling flame goes out (cf. Zinnemann’s The Member of the Wedding) and Ravi Shankar’s sitar morphs into an unforgettable wail of anguish. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is the great heir to this, the train roaring through the wheat field becomes Fellini’s Transatlantico Rex (Amarcord). Onto Benares at the close, and onto Aparajito. Cinematography by Subrata Mitra. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce