7 1/2 Cinema - India Matri Bhumi with Chicago Cinema Forum
Chicago Cinema Forum

Critic’s Choice - Andrew Patner, WFMT-FM 9/3/07; Critic’s Choice - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader 8/30/07

"The phrases "standing room only -- second show added" and "Roberto Rossellini’s rarely screened 1958 film ’India Matri Bhumi’" do not sound like bedfellows... But there I was last Saturday night, in the bustling lobby of the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park -- a community asset of the first order

08/31/07 - 09/02/07

Fri 1030p; Sun 730p; 10p (popular demand)

"The phrases "standing room only -- second show added" and "Roberto Rossellini’s rarely screened 1958 film ’India Matri Bhumi’" do not sound like bedfellows and in fact may never before have been used in the same sentence -- not even at the 1959 Cannes film festival, where Rossellini’s poetic, form-busting evocation of India blew the mind of, among others, Jean-Luc Godard. But there I was last Saturday night, in the bustling lobby of the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park -- a community asset of the first order -- trying to weasel my way into a sold-out Rossellini screening presented by a rogue agent of the Chicago exhibition scene, the Chicago Cinema Forum. No go. Couldn’t get in. But the Forum folks and the Chopin folks hastily arranged a 9:30 p.m. showing to deal with the overflow, and about 100 people stuck around for it. It was a fine time. The multi-ethnic crowd ranging from late teens to octogenarians clearly enjoyed the convivial vibe, and not just because there was wine and beer to be had. A loose but serious communal film-going experience was the idea behind the Cinema Forum, says co-founder Gabe Klinger, who teaches film at Columbia College Chicago and who writes about international film for a variety of publications, including a Slovenian arts magazine. "We called an emergency meeting," Klinger, 25, recalls of the Forum’s origins. "The emergency was that my friends and I felt [exhibitors] were losing an audience to the people who watch movies at home on DVD." In May they presented Maurice Pialat’s "Naked Childhood" in the Wicker Park loft residence of local projectionist James Bond. The recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, Klinger says, occasioned a lot of informal mini-retrospectives in various living rooms and lofts around the city. All well and good. But Klinger and his like-minded cinephiles crave a more democratic and festive approach to film appreciation and feel there’s a place for them among established presenters such as Facets Cinematheque and the Gene Siskel Film Center. The Chicago Cinema Forum has presented work all over the place, from the La Salle Bank Cinema to Bond’s loft. Klinger, who runs the operation with Christy LeMaster and Darnell Witt, says they plan to return to the Chopin before the new year with a local premiere of the Spanish film "Honor of the Knights," a success on the international festival circuit. Also this fall, a reportedly first-rate print of Orson Welles’ marvelous Shakespearean amalgam "Chimes at Midnight" is being slated for a Chopin screening. More: At the Sonotheque nightclub, with live musical accompaniment, the Forum plans to screen the Brazilian silent "Limite" and both halves of the Stan Brakhage duo "23rd Psalm Branch." And "we want to start a film festival," Klinger says, somewhere in Wicker Park, sometime late in ’08. He’s fully aware of how many film festivals the Chicago calendar presently accommodates. He’s also had it with the word "festival," a "worn-out descriptor if ever there was one. We want to create a true festival air, no red carpets or any of that [bushwa]. We’re hoping, wherever we are, to emphasize the communal act of moviegoing." - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune 09/07/07

"From the beginning film has owed part of its fascination to its ambiguous marriage of documentary and fiction. Just after the war Roberto Rossellini came to prominence as a filmmaker through combinations of this kind. K29His best-known early works, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), are associated with the style popularly known as Italian neorealism, but through the 50s Rossellini experimented with increasingly adventurous mixes of reality and invention, culminating in 1959 with India Matri Bhumi, whose title means “India, Mother Earth.” It’s a sublime symbiosis of fable and nonfiction that poetically interrelates humans and animals, city and village, society and nature. At war’s end Rossellini was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany. But once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues started coming to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. The Bergman films flopped both critically and commercially, though for the young critics of Cahiers du Cinema they were models of personal independent filmmaking that would help spark the French New Wave. Rossellini’s other bold forays during this period include a feature about Saint Francis of Assisi, a comic fantasy called The Machine That Killed Bad People (about a still camera that turns its subjects into statues), and a direct-sound recording of a play starring Bergman, made at a time when all films in Italy were dubbed. From this standpoint, India can be regarded as the pinnacle of Rossellini’s richest period, his crowning masterpiece. Jean-Luc Godard once referred to it as “the creation of the world,” and unlike many other films about India made by Westerners—Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) is prototypical—it can’t be accused of either presumption or pretension. It’s remained one of the hardest to see of Rossellini’s major works, in part because of the complex and chaotic conditions under which it was made and initially received. Then 51, Rossellini became romantically involved with his main script collaborator, 27-year-old Sonali Senroy Das Gupta, a traditional Brahmin who was married with two small children and, ironically, went to work for Rossellini only at her husband’s insistence. The ensuing scandal forced her and Rossellini to leave the country before the film was finished. (It was completed in French and Italian studios.) Its French producers were so dissatisfied with it after its Cannes premiere that they refused to give it a commercial release, and the Italian reception was lukewarm at best. Lamentably, the only print to have circulated with English subtitles is the badly faded and dubious 1987 restoration of the Italian version, which is missing almost ten minutes, including most of the final sequence. By common consensus, the French Cinematheque’s only slightly faded 1994 restoration of the French version—which survives in only one print, without subtitles—is the closest thing we have to a definitive edition. It’s never been available commercially, on film or video, and it’s doubtful it ever will be. But now that it’s been privately subtitled in English and on video by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, it can finally be seen by a wider audience. (The Chicago Cinema Forum is screening it twice this weekend.) India, like Paisan, is divided into separate stories with different characters and settings, but with a strictly documentary prologue and epilogue. Originally it was supposed to have nine episodes, but five were eventually discarded. (It was also originally meant to be called India 57—dating it by year, like Europa 51 and Germany Year Zero [1947]—but the number was dropped after its release was delayed.) Like most of Rossellini’s greatest work, it conforms to what Godard once called “the definitive by chance.” It has the spontaneous, unpredictable feel of a jazz improvisation while remaining so simply and lucidly focused it’s difficult to imagine it any other way. The four stories not only move between nonfiction and fiction, but develop more broadly from youth to middle age to old age to death while charting interactions between humans and nature. In all but the second episode nature is represented by animals: elephants in the first, a tiger in the third, a monkey in the fourth. In the second, it’s represented by a man-made lake: a laborer is preparing to leave Hirakud with his wife and young son after five years of helping to build an enormous dam with a crew of 35,000 workers. Deceptively, the documentary prologue is conventional to a fault: scenic pans across cityscapes, a standard voice-of-God male narrator intoning, “For anyone coming from the West, Bombay has been the traditional gateway to India.” We’re told about endless quantities of people, ethnic and linguistic mixes, as the pans continue across pedestrians. The tone briefly turns more personal when the ugliness of some of the architecture is briefly noted; then the narration and editing converge in a virtual parody of a conventional travelogue. We hear countless synonyms for “carrying” over a montage of people transporting assorted objects, followed by a long string of different verbs as the action in the montage changes. Eventually we see an elephant and the exposition becomes specific: “The elephant has been brought to the city for a religious ceremony. It comes from the immense jungle Karapur, where it works, lived wild, was captured and trained. The elephant is the bulldozer of India.” The next thing we know, we’re in the jungle, and gradually introduced to a procession of elephants guided by men who clear away trees. We learn that the elephants can only work three hours a day, from seven to ten in the morning, after which it becomes too hot. The rest of the day is spent tending to them. This leads to a sequence of elephants being bathed and scrubbed in a river that’s one of the most hypnotic, magical, and beautiful sequences in all of cinema, illustrating a kind of utopian interaction and harmony between men and animals. By this time it’s become apparent that the narrator is one of the bathers, and for the remainder of this story he recounts courting a peddler’s daughter, told in counterpoint with an account of the mating habits of the elephants" - Jonathan Rosenbaum - Chicago Reader 8/31/07

Roberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini

Tags: Film, Rest Of The World, 2007