India: Matri Bhumi (notes from 11.27.06 post MoMA screening)
A survey of a nation begins with a survey of a street. The camera is poised high above. The street is marked by a focal point at its center, an ancient statue that seems to be aiming upwards like an arrow or index. The statue stands erect and immobile. Centered by the camera's frame, it serves as a visual relic, fingering towards the past. A point around which the action (traffic) radiates, yet an immobile one that seems to impede the overwhelming sense of flow which otherwise defines these opening shots. A sign of ancient history around which the modern buzz of people are moving in and out. Crowded rivers of traffic illustrate the signs of modernity.
Nothing is stationary. Traffic is bustling and constant. The camera movements are dynamic. A freedom of motion is expressed, aesthetically and thematically. The year is 1958 --though the film also covers 1957--the duration of production yet another reflection of temporal crux. The country of interest is India, and the director is Roberto Rossellini.
Just a few years prior to making India: Matri Bhumi, Rossellini took a narrative film with two movie stars, (Viaggio in Italia/Voyage to Italy) and took a rare and revolutionary oppurtunity to infuse classically narrative filmmaking with a more modernist narrative path; depicted as it is by alienation, a slowed-down narrative pace, melancholy, interior psychology and fatalism. India exists almost tangentially to Voyage. Its motivation of montage seems instigated by rumination, reflection and a psychological yet non-voyeuristic observational interest. Voyage is characterised by a series of scenes that meander or radiate from the central "voyage." Speaking to a new type of cinema, the film's construction also speaks to a specific mood and tone that is characteristic to both time and place. The uncovering of relics in Pompeii and the rumination of an unhappily married woman are two such examples. India seems to be more in the form of documentary than of narrative storytelling, but you can feel Rossellini nudging at the walls of narrative formalism.
Documentary and fiction merge. India blurs the impentrable wall that classically separated these two narrative forms. The blurring maintains only the skeletal form of narration in order to drain the illusionary quality of cinema from its well. The film depicts India in a few separate episodic portraits. One subject of these portraits follows the observation of elephants...both as a majestic species and as modes of transport. A subtle co-mingling of tradition and modernity again inserting itself across the screen. The camera often hovers as an unobtrusive observer. This refusal to engage in tradition is no refusal of movement. Movements occur slower and with more internal focus. After the humans have left the elephants, the camera will linger; recording their sounds and their bathing. Time slows as the camera works to avert spectatorial expectations and ruminate on mood and feeling. The voiceover narration is dry yet informative.
Another episode focuses on a monkey who has been taken from its wild home and separated from his tribe. It has been co-opted by man, and once its owner passes on, the monkey out of synch and out of time has become the focus of the film. Another tangent overtaking the story, a modernistic device used in Voyage as well as throughout India. The image of the clothed and domesticated monkey, isolated in the frame of his wild relatives, is a tainted and unnatural image. The radiation that is graphically depicted in the opening shots (echoed with marvelous circularity in the closing sequence) serves as both an introduction and a summary to aesthetic form and content. The sadness of the denatured relic is brought home in these final moments...memory having tied together the loose narrative threads brought out through the subsequent episodes. From the glory of the elephants to the sadness of the old man run ragged in a small village, to the isolation of a relic monkey. The monkey has perhaps the most melancholic role of all. He is an index to a time out of joint. From realism to illusion to neo-realism and modernism; the remains of these movements are mirrored back to us in the shameful, denatured image of a monkey cowering alone in the frame. Dressed in a man-made costume, he is as spectactular, out of fashion and obtrusive as the marriage of modern transportation and ancient statues that are captured in India's opening scene.
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