In Pather Panchali, director Satyijit Ray has recorded certain portions of the life of an Indian family over a ten year period, describing the interaction of the five important characters: the mother and father, a daughter, a young son, and an old sick aunt. Shortly after the beginning of the film, Apu, the son, becomes a central figure, the viewer of the action, the mute commentator. The first we see of him is an eye, which his sister opens with her fingers; and his eye follows the action for the rest of the film, peering over stone walls, looking out from the folds of a cloak, staring down at the ground at his sister's death. By the middle, the film take on the appearance of the collage (for the episodes are disconnected, breaking off in the middle and resuming at some later time), and the focus of the story--of all that is going on--seems to exist in the mind of the boy.
There is no doubt that Pather Panchali is a remarkable film; there are some spots which have amazing impact, and the photography throughout is magnificent. Certain of the photographic effects tend toward the abstract, such as he delicate designs made of waterlily stalks and water bugs. There are certain very powerful moments, moments when one seems to move closer to the picture than he is at other times. Perhaps the finest scene in Pather Panchali shows the sickness of the daughter during a storm. Windows fly open and the rain blows in; the mother labors at fastening them again. Finally she turns back to the dying child, who raises her arms to her, and the two embrace. It is a moment of incredible power.
No other part of the film is comparable to this one. Many of the fragmented episodes are effective, but many others have little to add to the general effect. The disconnection itself has its purpose, and gives an all-inclusive quality to the film; yet it is also distracting and contributes to the film's great weakness: its general diffuseness, its inability to command sustained attention. For Pather Panchali, remarkable as it may be, is something of a chore to sit through. The viewer receives the impression that he is watching a document, an amazing document to be sure, but not an entirely absorbing one--and thus his eyes keep drifting over to the blue rimmed clock at the side of the screen. One can see the beauty of the camera work, the delicacy of the composition, but one can stare in dull amaze for only so long.
Critics of great note and little restraint have called Pather Panchali "great art" and a "universal experience," these terms being in great vogue at the present time, and very easy to come by. Thus those who want to see "great art" and have "universal experiences" will enjoy Pather Panchali no end. Those who wish to be entertained, however, should be warned that Pather Panchali, while often beautiful, may require more patience than they are willing to muster.