India: Matri Bhumi (1959)


(director/writer: Roberto Rossellini; screenwriter: from a story by Roberto Rossellini/Fereydoun Hoveyda/Sonali Senroy DasGupta; cinematographer: Aldo Tonti; editor: Cesare Cavagna; music: Philippe Arthuys; Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Roberto Rossellini; Criterion Collection; 1959-France/Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)

It was one of the director’s favorites and the film of his I liked best.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a rarely seen acclaimed Roberto Rossellini (“Open City”/”Socrates”/”Stromboli”) film, that was shot in 1956, in India, on the invitation of Nehru, India’s first prime minister. The purpose was to make a film about India, by an acclaimed international filmmaker, to promote its world culture. It was released in 1959, and did not totally satisfy Nehru because it didn’t say anything about India’s politics, foods, history and cultural contributions to the world. The rarely seen film was restored recently and released on DVD. It revolves around several lyrical stories about life in India, and mixes documentary with four short fictional stories. It was one of the director’s favorites and the film of his I liked best. This unique look at India features stories about the diversity of a crowded Bombay, how life in the rural villages is in harmony with nature, a look at the holy city of Madurai, of elephants as bulldozers taking down trees for logging, a puppet show, an elephant runner having his father arrange a marriage with a local farm girl, in Benares there’s commentary on the spiritual saying of trying to never be too sad or too happy because our soul doesn’t belong to us but to creation, it comments on the building over a seven-year period of the Hirakud Dam and tells of a dam worker from East Bengal who has to uproot his family again when the construction is completed, of an eighty-year-old retired contemplative farmer finding life in his jungle village upset by the arrival of technocrats looking for iron deposits that causes a once peaceful local tiger to become a man-eater because his food-supply is messed with by the interlopers, and, the most entertaining story, of a performing monkey whose master suddenly dies during a heat wave on the desert road to Baghedi and the monkey is forced to start a new life with a new master who trains him to perform in a traveling circus.

The varied stories coalesce into a whole, and interconnect life in the city with life inthe village, the eastern philosophy of karma with the Hindu belief in reincarnation, the need for religious tolerance and the need to be kind not only to others but to the animals. It’s a unique artistic visionary film about mother India that’s not possible to classify, but it’s highly recommended for those who wish to see a mesmerizing film that has many observational things about nature and humanity for the mindful viewer to draw upon.

After filming, when the 51-year-old Rossellini, married to Ingrid Bergman, returned to Europe with his new younger already married Indian paramour he met on the set, scandal followed.