Phantom India (1969)

Genres - Culture & Society, Epic  |   Sub-Genres - Politics & Government, Social Issues, Sociology  |   Run Time - 378 min.  |   Countries - France   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Nathan Southern

Louis Malle's massive, 6 1/2 hour opus Phantom India ranks among the two or three most formidable documentaries ever made. In terms of sheer artistic and sociocultural contributions, it sits on par with Triumph of the Will, Tokyo Olympiad and The Sorrow and the Pity, but its accomplishments are wholly unique and unlikely to ever be repeated. Throughout his life, Malle not only celebrated 'cinema direct' - the concept of simply standing back, camera rolling, and allowing events to unfold before the lens, resisting every urge to interfere with those events - but brazenly reinvented that form. With Phantom India, he pushed the envelope to its absolute breaking point by seeking out an environment with the most exotic, fascinating and conceptually challenging indigenous scenarios that he could find, and adamantly, stubbornly refusing to interpret any of the onscreen events for the viewer. That alone would make Phantom India a revolutionary work. But Malle also travels one step beyond, by lacing the soundtrack with repeated indications of his own bafflement and ignorance, his inability (alongside the viewer's) to even begin to grasp the events unfolding before him. This causes the entire documentary form to double back on itself, self-reflexively underscoring, for the viewer, the impossibility of definitive interpretation and the impenetrability of the cultural chasm between oneself and the spectacle(s) at hand. It also doubles the impact of the cinematic experience by drawing several times as much attention to the visual and aural plane of the motion picture; sensorially, the film functions as a kind of mass immersion into a cultural environment and actually transcends the limitations of its form. Phantom India's whopping length works to its advantage - at 378 minutes, it overwhelms the viewer with a staggering, blinding carnival of eastern life with innumerable sequences that burn themselves indelibly into the mind's eye; to single out any one would be doing the work a significant injustice.