I first saw this film over 20 years ago. Upon seeing it again, I was struck by how starkly it contrasts with the standard industry product. Just look at how the subjects of GOOD and EVIL are treated in mass entertainment.
The most obvious conclusion: Evil sells Big. It seems that audiences love the subject in all its forms. Serial killers are probably the biggest stars, but rapists, pimps, bankers and child abusers are also big. If the treatment of pure evil is slick and mature enough — as in The Silence of the Lambs — it will be given an Oscar.
But Goodness, if treated with honest simplicity, is rarely a best seller. Somehow, audiences have a hard time accepting virtuous behavior from average people. They want cartoon superheroes, or else phony feel-good stories about tireless, heroic martyrs who defend the rights of the same poor dull shlubs who sit in the audience. The only human flaw of these champions (Al Pacino loves playing these guys) is succumbing to all of the beautiful women who want to sleep with them. The latest variations are the reverse-gender heroes (Julia Roberts) who sleep with stud-candy blanks, or else “victim-heroes” whose virtue comes from overcoming some personal handicap.
But what about simple, average people who behave in virtuous ways? What films do you remember about such people? Distant Thunder succeeds in its modest terms because it refuses to over-dramatize its central conflict. It is about the people in a very poor village in India in 1942. The staple of their diet is rice; they would starve without it. Self sufficient in so many ways, they depend upon the local rice merchant for survival. Suddenly, after the Japanese invade Singapore, the cost of rice is pushed beyond what anybody has ever seen in their lifetime. Starvation and disease overwhelm them, and they are forced to leave their homes to beg for food.
The filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, remains the most honored from his country. This is one of his later films, very focused and told in the simplest terms. No swelling music, no impassioned speeches, very little dramatic action. The spare violence — a riot at the merchant’s house and an attempted rape — are rather awkwardly staged, and dramatically inconsequential. What stands out, however, is the wrenching pain of ordinary people who are forced to make a life-and-death decision: whether to give a precious cup of rice to their neighbors, or else watch them die to protect their own families.
Distant Thunder is about a specific historical event, but its universal theme is the existence of goodness as basic to the human character. We may not agree with that perspective, but we need more films that present it so credibly.