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Roberto Rossellini knew trouble like a dog knew fleas. The phases of his career tumbled over each other thanks largely to scandal and unpopularity, until come the 1960s he was making acidic, deliberately lifeless historical films for Italian TV that might be the least passionate, least overt Italian films ever made. India: Matri Bhumi (1959) is a lost station on the man's reckless journey, and on the surface it doesn't seem to be Rossellini's work at all. This is not the Neorealist Rossellini, the wrestling-adulterously-with-Ingrid-Bergman Rossellini, the good-soldier hackwork-after-Bergman Rossellini, or the low-budget Spartan-historian Rossellini. This Rossellini was invited to India by Nehru to make a film about Indian life and help globally revivify India's image as a world culture, and in the process began an affair with another married woman, creating another international scandal, and getting himself kicked out of the country. Once his postwar day in the Neorealist sun was over, it seems that everywhere Rossellini went, and whatever movie he would make, he disappointed everyone's expectations, and broke everyone's hearts.
This sense of adversarial conflict, of being at odds with the world, is prevalent in Rossellini's films, and a vital part of his auteurist persona. It's no surprise, then, to find that India: Matri Bhumi is a film at odds with itself, a roiling, puzzling hybrid of genres and perspectives that says a good deal more about its exile-prone maker than Nehru's India. For one thing, the film is commonly defined as a documentary, and certainly Rossellini begins in straight-on, ethnographic-tourist mode, describing the nation and its people in grand generalities while filming their day to day life in the bustling streets of the ancient and overcrowded cities. But soon he fictionalizes, landing down onto four short first-person tales set in various parts of the country, and these are acted, scripted, editing-room-constructed fables, even employing stock footage cutaways. The gray area between fiction and non-fiction is turned into an arid expanse, as Rossellini uses local natives and environments but molds them into pocket-sized Rossellinian narratives of disconnection and woe, just as he did in Paisan thirteen years earlier. It's a movie that slips fluidly between "real" and fabrication, not in the dishonest manner of Robert Flaherty, but as a taleteller might salt his tall stories with bits of fact and history to make them float and sail in the imagination.
A young elephant-runner courting and marrying a village girl, a husband having to move his family away after working for years on the Hirakud dam, a small village terrorized by a man-eating tiger, and a trained monkey left to fend for itself after his master dies in a drought - Rossellini opens these windows without introduction or ceremony. But of course Rossellini's genius was with finding the spatial-emotional moments in the landscape, and turning them into patient set-pieces; the greatest example is the protracted sequence in which workmen bathe a team of pack elephants, studying for many minutes, and without telling us why, the contrasts in physical size, the suggestive joy taken by both man and animal, the mythic temperature of a culture in which such an unlikely spectacle is an everyday occurrence.
Rossellini saves the best for last, and briskly limns an almost unbearably suspenseful scenario, as the monkey's owner collapses in the desert during a heat wave, the vultures circle by the score, and the tiny domesticated Capuchin, complete with tiny vest and shorts, tries to wake his master up, and then to be comforted by closeness with his body, and then to somehow hide from the swooping battalion of scavengers overhead. Rossellini is not a precise filmmaker - here he uses stock footage cutaways just as often as he miraculously encompasses the man and the monkey and the vultures all in one shot - but the inescapable verities of the situation are unforgettable. The monkey escapes - we're not told how - and then he becomes a hapless pilgrim in a land already clogged with starving, luckless people (and wild monkeys), at one point performing his circusy stunt for a sidewalk crowd of onlookers and scrambling to pick up the tossed coins which, the narration intones, "she has no use for." The monkey's crisis is powerfully existential, and together with the elephants' bliss (the film even follows an amorous couple of pachyderms for a walk out into the wilderness) it suggests that Rossellini might've had the most eloquent and mysterious use for animals in cinema, at least until Werner Herzog went to the Southern Hemisphere jungles in the '70s.
India: Matri Bhumi was not, in any case, what Nehru wanted. Almost spitefully, the film ignores Indian history, language, food, culture (excepting the architecture), and politics. As Tag Gallagher put it in his definitive biography The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, "It is a bit as though we are in India as tourists, watching the people around us. We don't understand their language, we haven't studied their art or history, we haven't opened our guidebook, and we've missed the Taj Mahal. We've gotten off the plane without knowing where we are. But we are quiet and attentive, and we watch for a very long time, intensely, and we commune with a world no books could let us into."
This is true as far as it goes - Rossellini does in fact refrain from subtitling or translating the native-language conversations, having us instead simply watch in mild incomprehension, as we might if we were in fact tourists. But even using the word "tourist" suggests a failure or lazy short-sightedness on the filmmaker's part, when what Rossellini does is stringently Neorealist: he understood India as a land in which, pace Hinduism's reincarnation tenet, nothing is quite past, and everything is mythic. Observational and yet hungry for a mythopoetic universalism, Rossellini doesn't pretend to "know" India, or to act on its behalf. Why anyone would think Rossellini could be trusted as a gun-for-hire cultural cheerleader is a mystery; certainly in this film he was awake to the culture's inherent climate of desperation, cruelty and suffering, regardless of how boosteristic the politicians wanted the portrait to be. But as always he's searching for something larger - the lyrical passage in which a humanistic truth blooms out of the film organically, and exists only to be patiently watched and revered. By Michael Atkinson