India: Matri Bhumi (1959) Poster

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Unusual film from Rossellini has its rewards
Andy-2965 August 2015
This episodic film, shot in 1956 and released in 1959, deals mostly with vignettes of life in rural India. It is not a documentary, since the episodes are obviously scripted and performed by amateur actors (probably villagers, themselves). Apparently, India's leader at the time, Nehru, asked famous Italian director Roberto Rossellini to make this movie (whether the Indian president or other authorities like the end result, I don't know).

The director praises through the narrator the widespread tolerance of the Indian people, and we soon see the diversity and vitality of the country. After a brief introduction in Mumbai, we move to what the movie calls the "real India", that is, the India of the villages. We see elephants being forced to work as loggers, a puppet show, an illiterate elephant runner having his father arrange a marriage with a local farm girl, a worker in a nearly completed dam knowing he will soon have to move with his family to another place (despite the desperate pleas of his nagging, complaining wife), an elderly villager having to deal both with the presence of man killing tigers nearby and the arrival of government mining prospectors, and, in the best story, a performing monkey chained to its master who has to escape when he suddenly collapses in the heat and is surrounded by vultures. As you can see, animals are as much the stars of this movie as people, as we see elephants, tigers, monkeys, cows, vultures. It is not very well known film, and it can be accused of being a tad folkloric, but is very much worth watching, especially in a copy with its color restored.
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A Visionary, One-of-a-Kind Documentary from Roberto Rossellini
Kalaman4 August 2003
I first read about "India, Matri Bhumi", an amazingly visionary though largely forgotten documentary from Roberto Rossellini, when one of my favorite critics Andrew Sarris mentioned it in his Film Culture essay on Rossellini back in the 60s. Sarris calls the documentary "one of the prodigious achievements of the century". So it piqued my interest since then. And then I read several critics' writings on the film, including film historian Tag Gallagher in his magnificent recent biography, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERTO ROSSELLINI. I wasn't able to watch it until recently when I viewed it along with several other Rossellini films. Though it is apparently not for every taste like most of Rossellini's work, "India" is undoubtedly on a short list of director's masterpieces. If you are a fan of the director, this is definitely worth catching. The documentary is basically an episodic portrait on India, circa 1957-1958; It captures life in flux at that moment in time. "India" is divided into four sections, each documenting the strange interaction between humans and animals, tradition and technology. The first section, after the opening shots of people walking in the streets, deals with some elephants taking bath; the second part concerns a labor worker in a dam; the third part is about an old man and a man-eating tiger; the fourth and most remarkable section involves the desperate attempts of a pet monkey whose master has died of heat wave. What surprised me the most about "India" is Rossellini's camera movements. Rossellini uses a combination of circular, swooping tracking shots, pans, and zoom to conjure up a strange yet personal vision of India, something that is almost very hard to describe in words. The color photography is also rich and fascinating.

I definitely recommend reading Gallagher's chapter on "India" in his book on Rossellini.
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A disappointment
bgilch17 April 2007
Perhaps it was the incredibly washed-out, virtually monochrome print. Perhaps it was the non-stop painful soundtrack of bird noises. Perhaps it was the overbearing, condescending ceaseless narration.

But mostly this supposed masterpiece reminded me of schoolroom educational films. The camera work is not particularly great; we learn little about actual (as opposed to staged) life in India; though closely immersed in local settings, there is virtually no geographic, historic or temporal overview to guide us; and the staged sequences come across as forced and distancing, most alarmingly with the monkey sequence at the end (it verges on flat out cruelty). Other sections have sudden and jarring outcomes that work entirely against the drawn-outness of the rest.

I can't think of a film that has aged less well than this basic documentary. Just because it's by a master doesn't make it a masterpiece. And yes, I watched it closely, understood its structure and themes and so forth. There are good sequences in the film (the elephant logging and dam building in particular evoke a clearly dichotomous relationship with nature) but it could have been well-trimmed, better contextualized, and shorn of its irritating narration.

What we have here is an outsider's, deastheticized, desaturated, scattershot, only slightly empathetic view of India. Let the images speak! And, most of all, let the Indians speak for themselves. It's taken 50 years to realize we should give them the cameras (Born into Brothels comes to mind.)
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more than that
lcaminati3 May 2007
Not an easy movie, and certainly it is not going to get a "blue sticker" from the pundits of post-colonial thought... but "Born into Brothels"? Ple-ease! A washed-out late night Hollywood-esquire expose' good for Anderson Cooper, maybe. Rossellini spent a year in India shooting a ten-hour documentary, and this little fiction film "India Matri Bhumi". The need for restoration is obvious, but the process of de-spectacularization is in full effect: a full frontal attack on the society of the spectacle at its incepts, by making an imperfect film, where ends don't meet, and birds sing freely. I take Rossellini over any postcolonial melancholic!
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