Tuesday Editor’s Pick: “Distant Thunder” (1973)

by on April 19, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

6:15 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

Vincent Canby for the New York Times:

Satyajit Ray’s fine, elegiac film, Distant Thunder [has] the impact of an epic without seeming to mean to. It is the work of a director who has learned the value of narrative economy to such an extent that Distant Thunder, which is set against the backdrop of the “manmade” famine that wiped out 5 million people in 1943, has the simplicity of a fable.

Though its field of vision is narrow, more or less confined to the social awakening of a young village Brahmin and his pretty, naive wife, the sweep of the film is so vast that, at the end, you feel as if you’d witnessed the events from a satellite. You’ve somehow been able to see simultaneously the curvature of the earth and the insects on the blades of field grass.

Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye:

Although the beauty of such villages and their surroundings has been celebrated in countless [poems and paintings], it was part of Ray’s intention with Distant Thunder to stress the lack of relationship between the moods of Nature and those of man… He uses color in the film to point up the contrast between Nature’s throbbing vitality and lushness, and the gradual ebbing away of life from human beings. People are dying even though there is a good rice-crop. The sun sets behind Gangacharan in a gorgeous riot of color but only we, the audience, have eyes to see it.
In Bengal a section of the audience…accused Ray of glamorizing the Famine. He rebutted the charge by pointing out the existence of color in both poverty and prosperity and explaining its counterpoint in the film; but he recognized that the relentless association of color with glamor in Indian cinema made it hard for Bengalis to adjust to Distant Thunder.


John Hughes for Film Comment (Sep/Oct 1976):

It used to be fashionable to pigeonhole Satyajit Ray as “a UNESCO director.” Nowadays it’s hip to talk about the supposed clumsiness or banality of his style. A neglect of Ray’s true greatness is one of the few things held in common by both the chic anti-ideological post-auteurists and the shrill dispensers of structuralist jargon and poststructuralist dogma. I recently listened to a usually reliable New York critic as he dismissed Distant Thunder for its “crude zoom shots” as well as for its “tedious close-ups of objects and, especially, of insects.” One could argue (although I didn’t) that the zooms and close-ups in Distant Thunder are carefully calculated aspects of a stylistic praxis… But the man who nervously studies his wristwatch near the end of Distant Thunder is, unfortunately, a kind of modern Everyman: you can see him among the so-called Third World politics of UNESCO, and you can also find him on the Left Bank or the Upper West Side making reductionist put-downs of the shimmering complexity of Satyajit Ray.

Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Satyajit Ray sets this film in a torpid Bengali village in the early 1940s. Soumitra Chatterji, Ray’s one-man stock company, who played the passionately romantic Apu in The World of Apu, is cast as a newly arrived Brahmin, the only educated man for miles around. “You are the jewel in our crown,” the ignorant villagers tell him, and he agrees. But the faraway Second World War causes the price of rice to soar, the traditions that bind the community are eroded, and the condescending Brahmin is no longer treated as a jewel. This isn’t one of Ray’s greatest films; it’s forced and riddled with flaws. Yet it’s still a Satyajit Ray film, full of feeling and astonishingly beautiful; the women are conceived as in a dream of the past-moving in their thin, clinging saris, they create sensuous waves of color in the steamy air.

Tom Vick for Allmovie:

Satyajit Ray’s first color film is also his fiercest social statement. The 1942-1943 Bengal famine was not a natural disaster but a man-made one. Food was available, but Bengal’s poor couldn’t afford it and the government did nothing to help. Ray’s outrage at this unfortunate episode in India’s history is evident in every frame of Distant Thunder…Ironically, this vision of deprivation is by far Ray’s most beautiful color film. Where his later films suffer from flat studio lighting, Distant Thunder is awash in gorgeous natural light and revels in the varied beauty of a natural world threatened by human destructiveness and greed.

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