Review: ‘Boatman’

Set entirely at Benares on the Ganges, the sacred river of the Hindu, "Boatman" captures the unique nature of this bizarre place, which is visited by Indians as well as tourists from all over the world. Original and eccentric, this highly entertaining documentary, told in English, Hindu and Italian, should be embraced by the international film festival circuit, before public TV and cable airings.

Set entirely at Benares on the Ganges, the sacred river of the Hindu, “Boatman” captures the unique nature of this bizarre place, which is visited by Indians as well as tourists from all over the world. Original and eccentric, this highly entertaining documentary, told in English, Hindu and Italian, should be embraced by the international film festival circuit, before public TV and cable airings.

Using Benares as a microcosm of Hinduism, short pic chronicles the people who live and conduct business there, the various rituals and ceremonies observed, and the tourists who flock there year after year. Every day, numerous bodies are cremated by the river’s banks, or just sunk into its waters. And there are always masses of people in the river, bathing, praying, drinking the holy water. In one of the most revealing moments, a boy washes his bicycle, while next to him a beggar’s body is dumped into the water, because cremation is too expensive.

At the center of the piece is Gopal, the charismatic boatman who serves as protagonist and narrator of this unconventional docu. While various characters appear only briefly, Gopal’s presence contributes unity and a constant reference point. His running commentary — including stories of how tourists are cheated and manipulated by the locals — lends a humorous tone to a film that exhibits a non-traditional vision.

Gianfranco Rosi, an Italian who studied film at NYU, observed the strange life at Benares during his extensive visits there over a three-year-period. Shooting a good deal of footage from within the boat, he creates the illusion of a moving point of view. Sporting a Fellini-esque sensibility — the Benares as a circus –“Boatman” assumes the shape of a road movie, though it’s a journey without clear destination.

Film’s power is achieved through the accumulation of bits and pieces of information, encounters between businessmen and visitors, random comments by foreigners from all over the world — and above all an unblinking camera that observes the most bizarre incidents one can imagine happening by the bank of this river.

Boatman

Production

Produced, directed by Gianfranco Rosi.

Crew

Camera (B&W), Rosi; editor, Jacopo Quadri; sound, Rosi. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Jan. 21, 1994. Running time: 55 MIN.
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