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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The River (Blu-ray)
The River (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // April 21, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted April 14, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

It's a pleasant shock to discover how respectful and loving Jean Renoir's sublime The River is towards Indian culture, especially considering the fact that it was released in 1951, an era when ethnic diversity in Western cinema was still limited to white explorers being stuck in a giant pot by black cannibals with bones through their noses. Hell, even a whopping thirty-three years after The River, Hollywood could still be gleefully racist towards Indian culture. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, anyone?

Based on Rumer Godden's novel, The River is a heartwarming mix of a docudrama about Indian culture, an exotic family drama, a romantic comedy about a love triangle, and a soulful philosophical study about peacefully resigning oneself to the natural course of life. The film has a fractured structure and doesn't adhere to traditional plotting or storytelling standards, which was very revolutionary for its time. The focus is on two English families living in India and the three daughters from the families falling in love with John (Thomas E. Breen), an American soldier who lost a leg during the war.

The story is told through the point of view of Harriet (Patricia Walters), the petulant and rebellious middle child of one of the families. Yet the voice-over is by an older version of Harriet, reminiscing on her adolescent days. This is a storytelling device that became very common decades later. From The Christmas Story to almost half of BBC's recent period dramas including Call The Midwife, having an older narrator reminiscing about their days of youth is a surefire way to bring about instant nostalgia.

Renoir takes advantage of this framing device as his film is edited like fragmented memories from Harriet's youth. Watching The River feels like the visualization of a grandmother wistfully relating her past to her loved ones without any predetermined story structure. It flows the way memories of childhood works, seamlessly transitioning between universal depictions of the culture at the time and equally universal yet strangely individual pains of growing up.

Even though there are many docudrama sequences spread throughout, lovingly portraying various aspects of Indian culture from the festival of lights to what essentially amounts to a short film within the feature depicting an ancient Indian love story, these elements are not dry, didactic, or cynical. This approach was very unusual at the time, since all audiences expected from a film about India were tigers and snake charmers.

In fact, Renoir initially had trouble getting his film off the ground precisely because the producers could not wrap their minds around a film that dealt with Indian people as if they were, you know, people, and not a bunch of racist stereotypes. Renoir even pokes fun of these Western expectations as John complains about not seeing a single man sleeping on a bed of nails after spending a day in India.

The River almost works as the colorful and loving anti-thesis to Renoir's cynical masterpiece about the class system in France, The Rules of The Game. As opposed to The Rules of The Game, which depicted a toxic relationship between the entitled aristocracy and the bitter working class, the English families and their Indian servants (One of the members of the family is even a mixed race Indian/English girl, which was especially daring at the time) in The River genuinely love each other and respect each other's cultures. When an unexpected tragedy strikes, they all band together in their collective grief.

In his first color feature, Renoir enters the territory of Powell and Pressburger's glorious Technicolor spectacles. In fact, with its bright colors and its romanticized approach to the subject matter, it's hard not to confuse The River as yet another Powell/Pressburger masterpiece. However, as opposed to Powell and Pressburger, who shot even their most exotic films in sound stages to amazing results, Renoir elected to shoot The River entirely on location in India, which gives his film a sense of authenticity no other feature at the time possessed.

The Blu-Ray:

Video:

Criterion does it again and brings a stunning transfer of yet another classic. Of course almost all of their HD transfers are near perfect, but as far as I'm concerned, they are the masters of adapting Technicolor classics into the digital world. For proof, just pop in your Blu-rays of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus (Here's another subtle mention of Powell and Pressburger for you). The River is no exception, as we get a gorgeous 1080p presentation where every color pops and nearly comes to life.

Audio:

We get another near-perfect Linear PCM 1.0 mono presentation from Criterion. Even though it's a colorful period piece, The River's sound design and score are actually surprisingly subtle and introspective. The lossless audio presentation stays true to the depth and nuances of the film's original mix.

Extras:

Introduction by Renoir: I love these introductions presented in every Criterion release of Renoir's films, where the director faces the audience and tells the story of that particular film's production as if talking to an old friend.

Interview with Martin Scorsese: This is a loving tribute from Scorsese, who fell in love with The River after seeing it as a child.

Around The River: This is a real treat, an hour-long 2008 documentary about The River's production, full of contemporary location footage and interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, which included a young Satyajit Ray who worked on the film. Ray died in 1992, so we get archival interview footage. I want to see an entire film, fiction or documentary, about The River's producer Kenneth McEldowney, who was a florist who decided to produce a major motion picture on a dare, knocked it out of the park, and never produced another film again.

Audio Interviews with Kenneth McEldowney: These are a series of snippets from McEldowney talking about The River's production. Audio only, but this is fascinating stuff.

A Passage Through India: A 15-minute visual essay about The River. It's hard to call it an essay, because it basically informs the audience of the film's production process. Many of these details are found in the Around The River doc, so watch than instead.

We also get a Trailer.

Final Thoughts:

The River is a loving, awe-inspiring and heartwarming ode to India, adolescence and the complex, sometimes tragic, sometimes joyful nature of life. It doesn't follow a traditional story structure and may feel a bit episodic at times. But if you relax and just let it flow through you like, dare I say, a river, then you'll be pleasantly rewarded.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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