A River Called Titas
Written and directed by Ritwik Ghatak
Written and directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
The Criterion Collection set assembling films rediscovered through the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is one of the company’s premier achievements. Bringing together six diverse titles from six different regions of the globe, the collection is a treasure trove for those seeking obscure, rare, and fascinating works that extend well beyond film history’s conventional canon. As stated by Criterion itself, “Each is a cinematic revelation, depicting a culture not often seen by outsiders on-screen.” The set also emphasizes, through its calling attention to the efforts of the WCP initiative, just how necessary and beneficial film preservation and restoration can be. The films included here are only a fraction of what else is out there waiting to be revealed and repaired, so with any luck, this set will be just the beginning.
Redes, from 1936, is the earliest and shortest inclusion, clocking at about an hour. But it is an hour packed with extraordinary imagery and a powerful message. Translated for American release as The Wave, but more accurately Nets, this Mexican film (with eventual Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann co-directing) is a sociopolitical examination of a small fishing village in the midst of revolutionary and economic change. In opposition to the vibrancy of the perpetually shining sun and ever-present sea, the film begins with stagnation, as boats are seen stationary on land and nets are hung up to dry. Fishing is slow, money is scarce, clothing is in tatters, and times are tough. These individuals have done a good deal of work, but the results have been minimal. Workers fight to survive while the wealthy throw their weight around and wheel and deal to their own benefit.
Once this basic premise is established, the film begins to take on a more didactic function. The socially progressive focus shifts to a call to arms in the spirit of collectivism, of fighting oppression and exploitation through employee organization. Wage disputes and struggles against corruption form the heart of the film. Somewhat heavy-handed, as many such propagandist features can be, the sense of insurgent defiance is nonetheless impressive. The other prominent focus of the film, related to this advocacy of the workers and their plight, is on the profession itself. With the natural locations, amateur performers, and attention to banal, laborious detail, Redes calls gorgeously shot attention to the mechanics of the work and to the physical exertion involved. In this combination of message and realistic representation, and through keen detail and almost abstract compositions of bodies and tools of the trade, Redes hearkens back to Soviet films from the decade prior and points toward the Neorealist films in the decade to come. (Visconti’s La Terra Trema, 12 years later, bears more than a few similarities to this work of “docu-fiction,” as cinematographer Paul Strand calls it.)
Scorsese provides brief introductions for each film in this collection (an additional interview or visual essay accompanies each disc, and a booklet for the set contains an essay about each title as well). With Redes, interestingly, Scorsese acknowledges that this was not a film he had seen before. Now, however, among its other qualities, he accurately points to the “majesty” and “grandeur” of the score, the music by composer Silvestre Revueltas being one of the highlights. The visual essay by Kent Jones details the film’s troubled back-story: contentious relationships between collaborators, extras, and the nonprofessional actors, and the crude means of production (editing by flashlight with a Moviola connected to a sewing machine foot pedal).
A River Called Titas, directed by Ritwik Ghatak, resembles Redes with a similarly realistic look at a remote and wholly distinct people. In this Bengali release from 1973, there is again a strong emphasis on the basic portrayal of a way of life, and it largely revolves around a body of water, symbolically and literally the source of cultural livelihood. Also set near a fishing village, and also boasting stunning cinematography, A River Called Titas takes its theme of progress and stretches it temporally and broadens it within a larger narrative. As opposed to the earlier film, where the sociopolitical change happens quickly and dynamically, Ghatak’s film is a more gradual examination of a world drifting out of its current existence. Children are growing up, getting married by choice or force, sometimes moving away, all while the traditional world of their past remains stagnant if resolute. Whatever the generation, one commonality seems to be constant in this world: tragedy. Ostensibly the key protagonist, Basanti (Rosy Samad) is just one young woman shown who suffers near-continual misfortune. Death, separation, poverty, hunger: these hardships are passed on like the traditions that historically, though more intermittently, govern their culture.
Filmmaker Kumar Shahani discusses the film and Ghatak’s inclination toward politically and socially rebellious views and working methods. Using his films to address critical issues (A River Called Titas is no exception), Ghatak stressed ideas over characterization, says Shahani, and by way of “lyrical” presentations, like in this film, he was able to examine the “wave of history,” in this case the partitioning of India. An aggressive cultural critique was why, according to Scorsese, the film was held back for release, and no doubt this cinematic instigation was why Ghatak had such a relatively limited output. With A River Called Titas, though, any sort of “point” the film may have, while still recognizable and supplemental to a full appreciation of the work, does nothing to hinder the pure emotional resonance, the personal drama at the forefront of this story.
If these previous two films dealt with cultures internally shifting, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki bouki, from 1973, is similar in its concern for traditional civilizations, but approaches this idea with far more emphasis on the outside world. Probably the most famous film included in the set, Touki bouki follows Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), jaded young lovers who struggle to assimilate in their conventional Senegalese community. Formally, the film reflects this conflict. It eschews customary narrative, making the most of “art film” devices such as plot ellipses and incongruous audio/visual juxtapositions, but its graphic depiction of animals being led to the slaughter and the decrepit conditions of their city show a far less glamorous and trendy reality. In addition to Touki bouki’s unique structure, its visuals are extraordinary; Scorsese calls the film a “cinematic poem,” one that “explodes one image at a time.” Indeed, its vivid depiction of local color bursts from the screen. The natural environment, the vibrant clothing, even the blood from the butchered cows: it all underscores an inherent dynamism in this world.
Tantalized and at times bemused by the increasing modernity confronting them (glimpses of skyscrapers beyond their impoverished surroundings, political activism at college, sophisticated fashion), Mory and Anta daydream, making plans to escape and live the good life in Paris. Like many a youthful ambition to flee their fixed constraints, however, the scheme is half-baked at best. In a film that is so concerned with the rush of modernity, where movement is paramount (cars, motorcycles, ships, even the mobile camera), it is ultimately a sense of stasis that prevails. Mory talks big, and he and Anta long for the day they can leave, but their fantasies always end with them returning to rub their successes in the nose of their community. As much as they want to move on, they ultimately hope to do so just so they can come back. And when the time does arrive, when it seems that everything is set to depart, Mory falters and cannot commit to such a drastic life decision. Even so, in the end, the film is a positive one. Filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako calls Touki bouki a “film of freedom.” While the two don’t reach the heights they aimed for, they came close and at least tried. They showed that they could if they really wanted to. More so than in A River Called Titas or Redes, the main characters in Touki bouki are capable of changing their lives if ambition and will allows.
The three films discussed here reveal with earnest authenticity and exceptional artistry people in the midst of drastic change, by their own doing or by the necessities of time. As such, they are not only engaging and entertaining stories of survival and social evolution; they are historical documents of a particular place during periods of profound transformation. The remaining three films of this World Cinema Project set — Dry Summer (1964), Trances (1981), and The Housemaid (1960) — featured in this column next week, similarly depict unique and seldom seen cultures. Only with these movies, the worlds are shown by way of popular music and documentary, and fictional tales of melodramatic sexuality, obsession, and violence.
— Jeremy Carr