Jean Renoir, after spending almost a decade in Hollywood struggling to establish an independent filmmaker staus, went to India. As it must have been for Renoir himself, THE RIVER is a breath of fresh air to its audience, which still holds a singular unique place in cinema.
Based on Rummer Godden's autobiographical novel on her childhood spend on the bank of the Gandhis River, the film explores a radically poetic narrative which depends neither on a plot, nor driven with strong characters. It is really a visual poem. It doesn't "describe" anything, in preference to capture (as well as to create) a certain atmosphere, in eccense a whole universe of a certain life, beeing "felt".
Though its aim was radical, and so were the mise-en-scene strategies taken by Renoir which were very unusual back then and even so today --especially the use of colors, that Renoir with his art director Eugene Lourie often walked around the sets and locations with cans of paint--, the film itself is very gentle, inviting the audience to share this idylic, magical, almost mystical universe of childhood.
The majority of the cast were non-actors, and the entire film was shot on location, including many shots taken in documentaristic situations showing the indeginious life surrounding the river.
At the same time, Renoir altered his location settings tremendously, both phisically (akmost re-painting everything) and cinematically (the two housese at the center of the story was actually one house that they rented). The story line itself often blends the "real life" aspects and the fantasy, not contrasting each other, or not even moving freely from one another; they just co-exist throughout the entire story.
And this approach is totally justified, for the ambition of the film is not to create a faithful representation of Indian life, nor to present a "post-card" exotic touristic vision through European eyes (as many runnaway production shot in foreign landscape does). If the film is faithfull to something, it is above all faithful to the childhood experience, how a child would have felt. Though the protagonist family is a British one, at least for the children India is not a "foreign" land: it is their home. And that is the atmosphere, the feeling of this entire film, of a childhood memory in which there were really no distinction between the reality and the imagination.
THE RIVER is a key film in Renoir's career moving from "reality" to "inner truth", from the naturalism and social realism of his 30's films to the theatrical atrificially and satyrically enhanced realites that are presented in Criterion's DVD edition of "STAGE AND SPECTACLE". Because of this transitional nature, and the adventurous, experimental attitudes he was able to take thanks to the difficult production conditions, it may be a film in which he could be the truest to his feelings, to his aesthetics, to his sensitivities.
Making this film in such a remote location, or just financing this project considered to be odd in the view of the industry (after all, it vitually has no plot devices, and Jean's determination of not using stars), was extremely difficult. The producer that he found, Ken McEldowney (whose interview can be seen as one of the supplements), was not a film producer, but a successfull florist and real estate businessman. While shooting in Technicolor required a lot of electricity for lightings and such, it was nearly impossible to get enough supply of that in India back then. They had to bring their own generator, which in turn made a lot of noize, when Renoir liked to shoot with direct sound as much as possible. To create the camera movements which give the film an extraordinary floating feel was yet another difficulty the filmmakers had to face, for the film was shot in three-strips Technicolor process which offers thick, subtle, nuanced and beautiful color pallette, but in turn its camera was so huge and heavy.
But as you will see on this DVD, featuring a High-Def transfer from a magnificently restored film elements, the result that they achieved is...
...I won't say stunning, that doesn't sound appropreate for THE RIVER. The Technicolor process is often mistaken that it provides strong, lush colors that pop up to the ey, which is not true (it was just that the majority of Technicolor photographed films used sets, costumes and make-ups emphasising on primary colors). It's color is deep, more subtle, actually far more faithful to reality than the monopack processes (such as Eastmancolor). The effects of THE RIVER to its audience is gentle, absorbing, and beautifully poetic.
Watching THE RIVER is not to be captivated by a story, or strong outstanding characters, or what ever you might expect from a movie. It is to be absorved in a whole atmosphere and feel it, experience it, maybe dreaming it.
Martin Scorsese also offers a video introduction to the film. Obviously the film has influenced his works a great deal, especially the use of colors, of the rythm. Scorsese, especially in his recent films, also always try to capture an atmosphere, and not neccessary to "tell the story". He certainly wants to make a film like THE RIVER, and the closest achievement of his so far must be KUNDUN, which is also a visual poem which aim was really to recreate a whole atmosphere of Tibet.