Cinephiles have long been conditioned to roll their eyes at mawkishly uplifting movies about the magic of cinema. The worst of these tend to come from people who can’t find any other way to make the same point, so it’s understandable if the ultra-earnest title card at the start of Pan Nalin’s “Last Film Show” inspires you to put your head between your knees and brace for a long two hours. “Gratitude for illuminating the path…” it reads, followed by a short list of names that consists of the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky.
In the moment, that feels like both way too much and not enough. By the end of Nalin’s sweet but wistful bildungsroman, however, the decision to open with such a hokey tip of the hat seems entirely justified (and not just because all five of those filmmakers are paid cute homage along the way). This is a story by and about someone who truly needs that light to see the way forward, and has always been able to find it in places where few others were even willing to look.
A semi-autobiographical fable set in the Indian state of Gujarat where Nalin was raised, “Last Film Show” might sound like a cutesy modern riff on “Cinema Paradiso,” but — as you already know — this achingly bittersweet requiem for a dream pulls from a much deeper pool of inspirations. Two of them are Sergio Leone and (early) Terrence Malick, and both drift into our mind’s eye from the moment we first see nine-year-old Samay walking along the railroad tracks that stretch past the modest house from which his overbearing father Bapuji (Dipen Raval) sells tea to passengers aboard the rickety trains that stop nearby. Played by Bhavin Rabari, a precocious and compulsively watchable nine-year-old Gujarati boy who shares much in common with his character, Samay doesn’t really know what cinema is at the start of the movie, and yet his life is already full of the stuff.
“Last Film Show” doesn’t fetishize Samay’s poverty, for it was Nalin’s poverty too before he found success with films like “Samsara” and “Valley of Flowers.” But Swapnil S. Sonawane’s wide-angle cinematography finds something hushed and holy in the light of a train slicing through a sunburnt field. Even more so in the darkness of the ramshackle Indian Galaxy Cinema where Bapuji takes his quietly luminous wife (Richa Meena) and their son one afternoon. Samay knows that it will be a special day before they even get there, as his dad — who spits at the movies as if they were a mortal sin — has made a rare exception for a Bollywood epic that aligns with his religious values. But the kid has no way of bracing himself for the cosmically transformative experience awaiting him inside that dilapidated film palace: True to its name, the Galaxy is full of stars (Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, and Akshay Kumar to name an obvious few), and Samay awes at the screen with the curiosity of an astronomer squinting into a telescope.
The trek to the theater is several hours in each direction, but that’s no time at all for a journey into another world and back again. It isn’t long before Samay begins sneaking back to (and sneaking into) the Galaxy every chance he gets. Nalin seems to be enjoying these scenes as much as his pint-sized proxy; not since “The Long Day Closes” has the inside of a cinema been rendered with such rapturous nostalgia, the light from the screen falling across Samay’s face as if his dreams were showing. But where Terence Davies was reflecting on his childhood, Nalin has updated his personal reverie to the not-so-distant year of 2010 — though evidence of the date can be hard to come by amid the film’s rustic setting. It isn’t now, but it’s also not so many yesterdays ago, and the encroaching crush of modernity finds Nalin’s memories crystallizing into a bridge between past and present in the same way that our minds fill in the black space between frames.
“Movies were invented to con people,” scoffs long-time Galaxy projectionist Fazal (a frayed rope of a man played without a false step by Bhavesh Shrimali), who lets Samay into the booth in exchange for some of his mother’s traditional cooking. “People are watching darkness for an hour — it’s all lies.” But Fazal’s job is to provide the light, and that’s what Samay loves about him.
This is a tricky role that could easily be romanticized to death if not for Nalin’s soft touch and the way that Shrimali balances Fazal’s cynicism with an unmistakable sense of purpose. Fazal and Samay have the kind of friendship that can really only take root in the movies, but it’s largely free of contrived drama and balanced out by the more traditional education Samay receives from his kindhearted teacher whenever the kid actually goes to school. For a film that alternates between Sundance-ready sentimentality and more abstruse meditations on globalization, capitalism, and the transient nature of cinema — including a devastating “Koyaanisqatsi”-like sequence that watches in horror as ribbons of celluloid are melted down and reincarnated as bracelets and cheap silverware — it’s helpful that Nalin sidesteps many of the scenes you’d expect from a story like this. Even at its most adorable or heart-tugging, “Last Film Show” retains a layer of gauziness that keeps it from growing twee; this is a downbeat film that doesn’t ask to be watched so much as looked through.
To that end, Samay and his friends spend a large part of it becoming their own little movie cult, an extracurricular activity that involves wearing bands of celluloid across their eyes like cyberpunk goggles and gradually assembling a hand-cranked projector from cardboard boxes and shards of tinted glass. Rather than race through that process with a poppy montage, Nalin diffuses it across a long stretch of time and renders the creation of Samay’s DIY cinema with almost Kubrickian remove (complete with a heavy nod to “2001” before a digital server arrives at the Galaxy with the coldness of a monolith).
“I want to become movies,” Samay declares at one point, and “Last Film Show” takes him at his word. For all of the specific references to Western auteurs, evocative snippets of Bollywood classics, and explicit shoutouts to everyone from Maya Deren to Hiroshi Teshigahara, Nalin’s focus here is less about the movies that made him than what he made of them in return — about how cinema allowed him to look at the light he could find in his life and refract it into a story worth seeing on the big screen. “From light comes stories,” Fazal says, delivering the sort of line that only the best version of this film can get away with, “and from stories come movies.”
But if Nalin reveals a certain pride in how Samay runs with that idea, “Last Film Show” doesn’t inspire much confidence that the boy knows where he should take it. Nalin’s stoic acquiescence to the future isn’t nearly as convincing as his nostalgia for the past — it sometimes feels as if he’s made an ode that plays like an elegy — and that’s a bitter pill to swallow in the wake of a pandemic that threatens to dislodge cinema’s already tenuous foothold in the public imagination. Nalin was able to see a path forward, but that was before movies were turned into bracelets. Even the final moments of “Last Film Show” suggest that cinema might sputter to a stop at any moment. Or they would, if not for Nalin and Samay’s shared belief that light finds a way.
“Last Film Show” premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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