Judge Bryan Byun comes away from the final film in this powerful trilogy a sadder but wiser man.
"Rich and contemplative, and a great, convincing affirmation."—Pauline Kael
Note: This film is the third in a trilogy; please refer to the review for Pather Panchali, the first film in the trilogy, for more background on these films and their director, Satyajit Ray.
Legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray's classic Apu trilogy comes to a magnificent conclusion in The World of Apu (Apur Sansar). Apu's story picks up in adulthood (in which he is played by Soumitra Chatterjee, who would become one of Ray's most frequent players), with Apu graduated from college and living in Calcutta, where he is a struggling writer working on an autobiographical novel. Unemployed and unable to find work, Apu is forced to sell books to pay his rent. His fortunes change, however, when a chance meeting with an old friend leads to a strange (and amusing) chain of events that culminates in Apu's getting married. Having lost his sister, father, and mother, Apu has been alone in the world, but with the unexpected arrival of a wife, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), into his life, he is no longer alone. This being an Apu film, however, it should come as no surprise that the happy days are all too quickly overshadowed by tragedy.
Pauline Kael described Satyajit Ray as "possibly the most unembarrassed and natural of directors," and those qualities are at the heart of all three Apu films, which seem to lack any self-consciousness or artifice on the part of their creator. The World of Apu is presented with straightforward realism, its joys and heartbreaks coming not from the pen of a writer but from the cosmos itself—a cosmos that cares nothing for human morality or mercy, but demands that human beings forge their own path through life. In some ways, The World of Apu is the darkest of the three films—in a kind of thematic echo of Harihar's anguished collapse in the first film, Apu is brought to the very brink of despair, and as in Aparajito must make crucial moral choices that will determine the future of his family. To impose some kind of moral structure on this film or its predecessors, however, is to obscure the truth Ray is seeking here. "It is what it is" may be a cliché, but that expression is perhaps appropriate for each of these films.
The World of Apu was Ray's fifth film, and his directorial prowess has been honed to a fine point; he is at the height of his powers here, and his lyrical, precisely observed perspective transforms the human drama into a masterwork of cinematic poetry. Scenes with Apu and Aparna bantering playfully in their apartment, Apu at a train station learning of a loved one's death, and a distraught Apu considering ending his own life, are shot with unadorned, raw intensity, Ray's directorial eye drawing the humanity of his characters into the forefront of every shot. Watching one of these films is like opening a window into the human heart, with all of its complexities and seemingly boundless capacity for happiness and despair.
Sony Pictures Classics' DVD release of The World of Apu is on a par with its companions, which is to say that picture and sound are pretty badly degraded despite the cleanup the films have received. Both the full-frame video and monaural sound are adequate, but they are not the pristine restorations the trilogy deserves. Problems with the video and audio quality can be excused, but not the lack of extra features on these discs. The World of Apu is a barebones release, which is a shame considering the artistic significance of these films. One can only hope for a more substantial release in the future, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
As with the previous films in the Apu trilogy, The World of Apu stands well on its own. Of course, the full dramatic and thematic impact of the trilogy can't be conveyed by a single film, but as it is representative of Ray's mature filmmaking technique, The World of Apu makes for a good introduction for anyone new to Ray's work.
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