Rossellini’s Orient arrives at Viennalle
Among hundreds of feature films, documentaries and short films from around the world, I spied India, Matri Bhumi, a jewel of a film in four episodes. The film is a record of Roberto Rossellini's personal impressions of India.
The Italian film maker was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru as India approached the 10th anniversary of its independence. Rossellini was thrilled. He arrived in December 1956 to shoot a documentary and a feature film for Italian and French television. The brief to Rossellini was to document the recently independent country that straddled between the past and a future a la Nehru.
Rossellini was thrilled at the drama. At that stage in his life, his own soul was caught between what cinema had achieved and the endless possibility of what he could achieve.
His work from 1941 to 1944 is known as the fascist period, when he made three films as fascist propaganda. As he matured, so did his work. Rossellini was unafraid to accept his mistake and his post-War trilogy is anti-fascism. Soon after, he became well-known as the father of neo-realist cinema.
He further refined his ideas and the result was a fine series of films in the early 1950s that rewarded him with the title of the father of modern cinema. This is the time when Rossellini felt that he had said everything about Europe, war and fascism. What next? This question plagued him. He was restless and wondered if cinema could help him rise above individual concerns to a truth that is all-embracing and perhaps more universal?
His visit to India multiplied his doubts. During his nine month sojourn in the country, Rossellini did not concentrate on the exotic. He did not film monuments. He focused the camera on life as lived by a majority of Indians, the aam aadmi. His interest was in human beings as they are shaped by the world around them.
He looked for fresh experiences to whet his curiosity about life and truth. As for the torrid affair that the much married Rossellini had with Sonali, his Bengali script assistant, during this trip, no one knows if it added to his confusion about cinema and life, or cleared it; besides, this is a topic for another time.
From India, Rossellini returned to Rome with Sonali and her infant son. Such was the infatuation between the two that the 27-year-old Sonali left her older son in India.
Back in Europe, Rossellini wondered if cinema can serve as knowledge. He wondered about the cultural value of cinema and if it can promote an opening of consciousness. "I went abroad to experiment this view of cinema, but I can try it in Europe as well. Wouldn't it be good to have ethnographic films on Paris or Rome?" he wrote.
India changed Rossellini in many ways. Now he worked more for TV. He also watched crass capitalism extinguish feelings of solidarity among human beings through the 1960s and 1970s. He saw the mood change from hope after the tragedy of the Second World War, to revolt and anarchy. He saw more and more people standing for the self in a very material, selfish way. He saw how the powerful medium of TV encouraged crass commercialism and he struggled with ideas that were contrary to materialism.
Rossellini studied spirituality and got interested in the Orient. He delved deeper into the work of Karl Marx. In 1977, when he died of a heart attack, Rossellini was putting together a TV film about the young Karl Marx: Working for Humanity.
India, Matri Bhumi has been restored and making the rounds of international festivals. This rediscovery of Rossellini's cinema at a time when TV and terrorism dominate life is a great gift to contemporary society. It revives the promise in art as a gateway to truth.
Thanks to the Viennale for confronting the viewer with many similar moments of truth. "It is a film festival's job to create moments of recognition, of enjoyment, of shock, of learning. Not of consumerism... But moments without pretense, unclouded by vested interest, by intervention, by cynicism, by everyday business. Committed to nothing, but the thing itself. Under obligation to nothing, to no one, not even the filmmaker. To basically seek access to a form that does not yet exist, a place no one has been to, a time that has not yet come." This is what Hans Hurch, director of the Viennale said, when asked about his choice of films.