Boatman (1993)

Rosi’s eye-opening first-ever documentary could be his finest—he plants his camera on a boat along the holy Ganges River, capturing the assortment of sights, sounds and fervent opinions, as it meditates on the cycles of life and death.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #2,376

Dir. Gianfranco Rosi
1993 | Italy/India | Documentary | 55 mins | 1.33:1 | Hindi, English & Italian
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some disturbing scenes

Plot: The account of a trip along India’s Ganges river, where locals come to bath, work, or meditate. In a series of small portraits, this sacred place is beautifully depicted. The endless circle of life and death is at the core of India’s population, and it is manifested in how the dead are bid farewell.
Awards: Nom. for Grand Jury Prize (Sundance)
Distributor: The Party Film Sales

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Tradition & Culture
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

In Gianfranco Rosi’s first documentary, a medium-length feature that immerses us deep into the Ganges River in just less than an hour, we can already see why he would become a great documentary filmmaker.  After finally surveying his complete feature filmography, I would say that this is possibly his finest work. 

Like most of Rosi’s documentaries, Boatman is eye-opening—by planting his camera on a boat, we become ‘tourists’ and through this largely observational mode with few interjections, we get not just the assortment of sights and sounds but also the fervent opinions of the boatman (and many others) who would tell us about the holy river, myths and traditions. 

We, of course, get out of the water and into the streets but the bustling river is the focal point. What raises Boatman to another level is its meditation on the cycles of life and death. 

“The only difference here is that the people are crazy because they are crazy, but they accept you for who you are.”

And quite literally so—while people wash, bathe, drink and cook by the river, dead bodies are sent off into the depths of the river as part of last rites.  Some are cremated along the river in a bonfire before their ashes are scattered into the water. 

Those who know little of the culture and way of life of others may find such traditions disturbing. For me, Boatman is fascinating precisely because it shows us life as it is, unfiltered. 

Furthermore, as it was shot in black and white, the film is rarely marked by time (save for a few shots that date the ‘90s), so it does feel like it could have been made many, many decades ago or produced yesterday.

Grade: A

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