The River(The Criterion Collection, 3.1.2005)
In the last year or so, The Criterion Collection has been very kind to fans of legendary French director Jean Renoir. In just over thirteen months, they've released impressive DVD editions of The Rules of the Game, The Lower Depths, The Golden Coach, French Cancan, Elena and Her Men, and now The River, Renoir's Technicolor ode to India. With its minimal narrative and frustrating reliance on voice-over, this film still manages a nicely detailed, observant exploration of Indian life. However, The River's true appeal remains elusive and difficult to articulate. It succeeds primarily because of mood, tone, and atmosphere, all of which adds up to form a quietly powerful, poetic, and vaguely old-fashioned cinematic experience.
Including almost two full hours of extra features, Criterion again makes impressive use of a single disc. Like Criterion's recent Short Cuts DVD, there's an equal emphasis on the film and its source material. The most substantial feature is an hour-long documentary about the novel's author Rumer Godden (who also co-wrote the script with Renoir) and her experiences in India. Made in 1995, only three years before Godden's death (at the age of 90), this informative piece features stock footage, clips from films based on Godden's writing, and readings from the writing, itself. Unfortunately, this BBC-produced doc is dull in a typically "tasteful," BBC kind of way. Criterion calls it "exquisitely photographed" but, in comparison to the luminous colors of The River, this largely monochromatic approach feels flat and uninspired.
In a lengthy audio interview from 2000, deceased producer Ken McEldowney -- who never produced another film -- discusses both key creative forces in the making of The River: Renoir and Godden. Sounding oddly like William S. Burroughs, McEldowney reveals that Godden initially resisted the adaptation because of her distaste for Powell and Pressburger's otherwise highly regarded Black Narcissus (also adapted from a Godden novel). McEldowney also explains that Indian movie star Sabu (The Thief of Bagdad) wanted a part so badly that they had to pay him not to be in the film.
The disc's best features are short and sweet. First, there's an introduction by Jean Renoir that comes from the same series of introductions that Criterion included on their previous Renoir releases. Presumably, these were recorded for French television, some time before Renoir's death in 1979 (if I had to guess, I'd say they were shot some time in the mid-60s). Renoir explains that he was only willing to make the film if they could shoot in India. He also claims that the experience taught him about patience and lead him to the compassionate stance that is often used to describe his filmmaking philosophy: "everyone has their reasons."
The highlight of the disc is a 13 minute interview with Martin Scorsese, in which he describes the film's effect on him since discovering it with his father at the age of 8. Although Scorsese makes impressively unsentimental films, he's obviously a big-hearted, emotional person in real life and that comes across in this touching re-counting of the bond The River helped forge between him and his father. A dedicated proponent of film preservation, Scorsese was also instrumental in the recent restoration of The River, a film that he describes as one of the two most beautiful color films ever made (the other being Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes).
If that's not enough, Criterion also includes the film's theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and three written pieces in the accompanying booklet: essays by Ian Christie and Alexander Sesonske, and "Notes on The River" by Renoir. Of particular interest, Christie and Sesonske note that budding filmmaker Satyajit Ray -- a journalist at the time -- was an advisor to Renoir. Ten years and one Apu trilogy later, Ray was regarded as the greatest Indian filmmaker of all time, a title he retains to this day.
With its detailed background on Indian culture and Rumer Godden, this disc makes a terrific companion piece to Criterion's even better Black Narcissus release from a few years ago. Both are fascinating films about a fascinating culture.
Overall, another fine addition to Criterion's rapidly expanding Renoir catalogue. -- Jonathan Doyle