In 1967, Louis Malle was commissioned by France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make a series of films about India. Having planned only a five-week visit, Malle was at once so enraptured and so appalled by the country that he returned several times over the next 12 months — the year of the Beatles and the Maharishi, of Ravi Shankar, of sitars in the Hit Parade and the opening of the hippie trail to Kathmandu — accompanied only by a cameraman and sound engineer. Malle’s M.O., “no plans, no script, no lighting equipment, no distribution arrangements of any kind,” dovetailed with his desire to merely watch and absorb — mindful of the limitations of his alien perspective (“Westerners with cameras; foreigners twice over”) — the transcendent beauty and quotidian horrors of the nation V.S. Naipaul would later call “a wounded civilization.” The result, broadcast on French television in 1969, was Phantom India, an epic portrait of a terribly impoverished, grossly overpopulated country, bisected by religion and caste and still reeling from 200 years of British imperial stewardship. Throughout the film’s seven hours, one is repeatedly reminded that Malle the documentarian — who got his start as cameraman on Jacques Cousteau’s Oscar-winning Le Monde du Silence — was every bit the equal of Malle the feature director, and it’s easy to see why some have argued that Phantom India may be the towering achievement of his entire career. Peppered with astonishing images — a flock of vultures disemboweling a dead bison; a man pushing a sewing machine down a deserted highway (“In France it would seem surreal . . .”); pilgrims dragging a wildly unstable, 50-foot-high wagonload of priests through a chaotic city street — the film intercuts scenes highlighting the contrariness, the insurmountable Otherness, of India in all its manifestations, with those depicting the Sisyphean struggle of many Indians’ hardscrabble daily lives. Situated halfway between complex political treatise and sunstruck fever dream, more Chris Marker than Frederick Wiseman, Malle’s documentary stands as an enduring attempt to comprehend a complex, possibly incomprehensible nation. India may have changed in the 37 years since, and Malle is long dead, but Phantom India — still relevant, still rapturous — retains its limitless capacity to haunt. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Parts 1-3, Fri., March 17, 7:30 p.m.; Parts 4 & 5, Sat., March 18, 7:30 p.m.; Parts 6 & 7, Sat., March 18, 9:30 p.m. 323-857-6010; www.lacma.org)
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