Jean Renoir's intoxicating first colour feature shot entirely on location in India is a lyrical adaptation of Rumer Godden's autobiographical coming-of-age tale of an adolescent girl living with her English family on the banks of West Bengal during the waning years of British colonial life.
Exquisitely shot in luminous Technicolor by Renior's nephew Claude, The River is a visual tour de force and a glorious, meditative tribute to the sights and sounds of Indian culture.
Perhaps, Renoir's most symbolic and spiritual film, displaying great humanity and refreshing simplicity. The River received tremendous international acclaim and remains one of his most popular films.
BFI presents Jean Renoir’s The River on Blu-ray through a limited edition 2-disc set, delivering the film in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on the first dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from the same 2004 restoration performed by the Academy Film Archive and used by Criterion in North America for all of their previous DVD and Blu-ray editions. The source for the restoration were the original 35mm nitrate three-strip negatives.
I was expecting BFI's release to look about the same as Criterion’s 2015 Blu-ray edition since they’re both sourced from the same restoration, yet shockingly that’s not the case. Digitally the presentation looks fine: it’s encoded well, grain looks decent and detail levels are great. The film still has a good Technicolor look about it, the colours maybe leaning warmer but not to an extreme degree, still suiting the film. Colour separation rears its head here and there, but otherwise the colours are nice, reds, blues, violets, greens, and more popping out nicely, with strong blacks to help the nighttime scenes.
Where things really differ between this edition and Criterion’s previous releases is how source damage is substantially heavier here, showing that Criterion did do digital restoration work of their own on their edition, BFI taking a more hands off approach on theirs. The opening of the film is particularly rough, with a lot of marks and scratches raining through, accompanied by pulsing and fluctuations in the colours. This varies from shot to shot as well. As the film continues things ease up considerably, but those marks still pop up sporadically, with some heavier moments here and there. Colours are stable for the most part, but there are instances throughout where they will begin to pulse a bit before stabilizing again. Criterion’s 2015 Blu-ray, along with their 2005 DVD, fixed a lot of these things without impacting the presentation in an overtly negative manner.
At the very least the presentation still has a decent film-like quality, it just looks as though this is being presented as-is.
The film comes with a lossless PCM 2-channel monaural soundtrack. Though it can get a little edgy in places it’s a clean enough presentation. Dialogue is clear and easy to hear, music sounds fine enough, and damage is not an issue.
This two-disc limited edition is stacked with a number of terrific features. The first disc’s supplements are specifically related to Renoir's film, starting with an introduction by filmmaker Kumar Shahani, recorded in 2006 (for BFI’s DVD edition for the film) and running 16-minutes. Shahani is very honest with his thoughts on the film, explaining how he and other Indian filmmakers (which included Satyajit Ray) were initially embarrassed by how the film represented India, but he explains how he appreciates it more now, at least on a technical level, from its documentary feel to its use of colour. He also touches on some of the casting choices and brings up members of the crew, some of whom he has worked with himself. It’s an interesting overview of the film that praises its technical achievements while fairly addressing some of its more problematic aspects.
Like Criterion’s 2015 edition for the film, BFI also includes the 2008 making-of documentary Around the River, featuring interviews with Radha Burnier, Alain Renoir, James Ivory, Satyajit Ray, and others. It starts off covering Renoir’s move from France to America (unsuccessfully) and then how he came to begin making The River, which was a long, tenuous task itself, appearing as though he may never be able to finish it until florist Kenneth McEldowney expressed interest in adapting the novel and financing it himself. From here the documentary goes through the surprisingly rough production through said interviews. It’s really an unorthodox story itself and this documentary provides a fascinating retelling of it.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer and a self-playing gallery running about 5-minutes and featuring photos, promotional materials, posters, and behind-the-scenes bits.
The second disc—which appears to be exclusive to this limited edition—then features a collection of films around India. The big addition is the Italian-language version of Roberto Rossellini’s India Matri Bhumi. The 90-minute film comes off somewhat like a documentary, Rossellini obviously enchanted by the country as he captures stunning images of the land, the people, and more, though from an admittedly romantic angle. That romantacized foreigner view is largely due to a dramatic angle that is present. Using locals as his actors, Rossellini tells the story through what one could call a series of dramatized skits, giving the film more of a narrative when presenting certain aspects of Indian life. This of course leads one to question the accuracy and authenticity of the individual scenarios and moments, though there’s still a charm to the film and the footage looks great. An essay by Tag Gallagher in the included booklet explains the background to the film (Renoir’s The River was apparently inspiration) and touches on the mixed reactions it received after its screening at Cannes.
For the presentation here BFI is using a 2011 restoration performed by L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna, and it does bare some of their hallmarks, including a very heavy yellow hue to the picture, sucking out blues and impacting blacks. The digital presentation also comes off a bit dated, grain not rendered as cleanly as one would probably like, but the restoration has still cleaned up the image decently enough and the film is sharp with a nice film quality to it.
BFI then includes the 2018 film, Around India with a Movie Camera, comprised of footage filmed between 1899 and 1947 and found in the BFI National Archive. The footage (all sourced from high-def and standard-def scans of the original material) is at times rather incredible, but through this footage the film examines how these films look at India from a colonialist point of view, and how these views changed as the footage approaches India gaining its independence. Despite the loaded nature of some of the material, whether it be from what is found in some obvious propaganda or through some cringe-worthy narration, it’s all endlessly fascinating, capturing some unique moments. The film runs 73-minutes.
(As a warning, there’s a short amount of footage around a group of people that perform self-mutilation. What the film shows is not the worst of the footage that is apparently available out there, but there’s still a fairly graphic sequence involving a man piercing himself.)
BFI then includes two shorter films: the 1914, 4-minute Villenour and the 1909, 8-minute Manufacturing Ropes and Marine Cables at Howrah, Near Calcutta. The former feels to be something along the lines of a travel advertisement, featuring “well-to-do” Europeans visiting the country, while the latter is exactly as advertised: a document of the local jute industry in its manufacturing ropes and cables, from unloading materials to weaving it. Some of the footage from these films also shows up in the previous one.
BFI’s 37-page booklet features that aforementioned essay by Gallagher on Rossellini’s film, but opens with a short essay on The River by David Thompson (not David Thomson, as I almost wrote out). This essay is then followed by a 1993 interview with author Rumer Godden performed by Thompson, Godden talking about the film's production, the adaptation of her book, and even how Renoir was not terribly good at directing children. The booklet then reprints an essay written by director Satyajit Ray in 1950, the filmmaker recounting his meeting with Renoir while the French filmmaker was in India making the film, or at least prepping it. He expresses disappointment when he learns the film would be presenting India with an American audience in mind, but an obviously excited Ray writes about his conversation with the director about his work and what the future might hold. It’s a delightful piece, Ray obviously taken by the man and the experience, even expressing at one point his nerves around meeting him. After that is an essay by Dina Iordanova on the colonial point of view found in films like The River and India Matri Bhumi, which is then followed by details around the other films found in the release (a note written specifically by director and editor Sandhya Suri for Around India), including the making-of documentary.
Criterion’s own release featured a couple of other interviews (including one by Martin Scorsese) that are sadly missing here, but BFI’s edition is a worthy alternative to that edition thanks to the inclusion of the bonus films.
BFI takes a more hands off approach in its presentation compared to Criterion’s own Blu-ray, which ends up leaving a lot of source damage intact, but the inclusion of a number of bonus films—including Roberto Rossellini’s India Matri Bhumi—make this a worthy alternative.