As the camera looks down upon an ornamental design created from rice powder and water, the narrator (voiced by June Hillman), who speaks throughout the film, welcomes us to the world of The River. This is Bengal, “where the story really happened,” and this is Harriet speaking, reflecting back on her life at a very confusing and significant time. For all intents and purposes, The River is primarily her story. And in this, the film is an intimately personal cinematic memoir. But The River is also something else. In its depiction of the “river people” who inhabit this region of India, the film also takes on an ethnographic appeal, capturing the “flavor” of the setting and its inhabitants.
Guiding this journey is the great French director Jean Renoir, fresh off a tumultuous sojourn in Hollywood, and writer Rumer Godden, who grew up in India and thus lends The River a further degree of autobiography. Renoir became fascinated with Godden’s novel when he first read it in 1946, and for her part, Godden was no stranger to the movies, having seen two of her works previously adapted for the screen, including the brilliant Black Narcissus (1947), the film version of which she was evidently not a fan.
As the film is primarily concerned with Harriet as a young girl (played by Patricia Walters), it charts her precarious tween encounter with first love as a chief narrative thread. Not a child, not yet a woman, Harriet is at an impetuous age, bristling with curiosity, infatuation, and awkwardness. She is a self-described “ugly ducking,” and while that seems an extreme evaluation as far as Walters’ physical appearance, her unexceptional looks do give her a charming presentation of normalcy; in fact, many in the film are not conventional-looking performers, which further underscores a broad and easily relatable identification with their various personalities and concerns.
Joining Harriet are her mother and father (Nora Swinburne and Esmond Knight), four siblings—three other girls and a boy, Bogey (Richard R. Foster)—their maid, Nan (Suprova Mukerjee), and her two neighbors, the English-Indian Melanie (Radha), recently returned from studying abroad, and the wealthy Valerie (Adrienne Corri), a beautiful if temperamental young woman. All is relatively calm and idyllic until Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) arrives and sends the girls—and some of the women—into a tizzy. Their flirtatiousness manifests itself in a variety of ways, from timidity and naive sweetness to moments of childish posturing and even cruelty.
The final character in the film is the Ganges River, which mirrors and influences the lives of those that surround it. The narration and, subsequently, Renoir’s visual focus, spends considerable time expounding upon the river in a documentary-style survey: its natural genesis, its purpose, the animals that populate it, and those individuals who share with the body of water a mutually dependent connection.
While there are many individual dramas in The River, there remains no grand narrative. The film progresses episodically as the lives of these characters realistically play out over the course of several weeks. Though the stories are simple, these particular variations on common incidents could not be told anywhere else quite as they are here. This local flavor is what makes the film so unique. Many events in The River, particularly the special occasions like the Hindu Diwali festival of lights, come alive with great joy and buoyancy, celebrating the passion of the indigenous people. At the same time, the narration covers a good deal of Hindu history, providing background and explanation concerning the religious imagery and rituals observed. In the life of The River, it’s all about small moments and details—small moments such as when Harriet breaks down crying in jealously and Bogey first kisses her arm then hugs his sister while patting her on the back, and details such as the inner workings of the jute press, which appears to be extraordinarily hard work.
It’s not a point Renoir seems especially concerned with hammering home—though it is powerfully shown in at least one scene—but by way of contrast to the giddiness of young love and all of its fleeting silliness, Captain John’s story arc touches on the “bitter reality” and torment of his war ravaged body. John (and Breen in reality) only has one leg, and is a post-war reminder of the brutal truths that otherwise appear to have no place in this serene Indian village. Still, there is a truly sorrowful death near the end of the film. And yet while certainly sad, it is an example of the inevitable natural process of life, which is paramount to The River—and the river. Everything goes full circle, continuously flowing. As the older Harriet recites: “The river runs. The round world spins. Dawn and lamplight, Midnight, noon. Sun follows day – Night, stars, and moon. The day ends; The end begins.” Even with this tragic death, after all, it is a birth that ultimately concludes the film.
Godden wrote the script with Renoir and they each deserve the utmost credit for their respective contributions. That Godden was able to put these complex emotions into words is as remarkable as it is that Renoir was able to further translate them into images and atmosphere. See, for example, the sequences of romantic drama, wafting in and out of the plot as if by a serene wind, emerging as the main plot point one minute, receding to the background the next. An overall ethereal tone is enhanced by surrounding music continuously emanating from unseen sources and a leisurely pace given its best representation during a montage of peaceful afternoon naps.
In a 2004 interview included as part of the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Martin Scorsese counts The River with The Red Shoes (1948) as the two most beautiful color films ever made. The Technicolor photography by Renoir’s nephew, Claude, is indeed astonishing. The River was the first color film shot in India (a country that demands to be seen in color) and the first color film from Renoir, who was right at home with the format and would become a master of stunning color with pictures to follow, like The Golden Coach (1952), French Cancan (1954), and Elena and Her Men (1956). Taking place mostly during the fall and winter seasons, there is not so much an abundance of natural color in the landscape; rather, the color is from that which is created by the people through their innate artistic expression, via decorations, clothing, and celebrations. Only at the end of the film, with the arrival of spring, does nature itself begin to bloom in full expressive vibrancy.
In addition to this Scorsese segment, just about everything you could want to know about The River and its unorthodox production is covered in the assortment of bonus features compiled by Criterion. This includes Renoir’s own 1962 introduction to the film as well as an interview with producer Ken McEldowney, Jean Renoir: A Passage Through India, a new video essay by film writer Paul Ryan, an essay by Ian Christie, and, most informative of all, Around the River, a thorough documentary by Arnaud Mandagaran.
Cast largely with amateurs (though apparently Mel Ferrer was originally signed on to play Capt. John), The River favors style and characterization over any major storyline. But its multifaceted slice-of-life chronicle is a beautiful one, a distinct and universal one, and one that is all so gloriously realized.