I find Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation of The Lower Depths (どん底) strangely comforting. I feel the same way about The Seventh Seal--although both films are fundamentally very grim, they both do such a good job of establishing the sense of a world by creating so many characters with diverse motives operating in it that revisiting them feels like visiting old friends. Considered a very faithful adaptation of Maxim Gorky's 1902 Russian play, watching Kurosawa's version again last night I found myself thinking the story works as a very intelligent rebuke to the famous Karl Marx quote, "Religion is the opium of the people."
I like how Bokuzen Hidari's character never directly claims to be a monk, despite bearing the accoutrements of one, but everyone calls him a fraud anyway. When he kindly tells the dying woman (Eiko Miyoshi) about a paradisical afterlife or the alcoholic actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) that there's a temple where his damaged liver can be healed, the gambler (Koji Mitsui) and Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), the thief, bitterly relish making cynical pronouncements about it under a thin guise of good nature. They both assert of course we all know he's lying but isn't he kind?
If they thought about it for a moment, they might realise showing off their own powers of perception would have a devastating impact on the people Hidari was trying to console, as it does for the actor.
Those shots of Fujiwara sitting motionless in his bunk while the prostitute (Akemi Negishi) is arguing in the foreground are so devastating. I like how Kurosawa shows the actor draw the curtain across his bunk but then shows us through two wooden beams that he's still just sitting there, staring into a void.
I also like how Kurosawa doesn't go to a closeup of him when the prostitute runs outside. The camera stays outside and watches him say farewell through the rain.
This is all after the three principle actors have left the film--Toshiro Mifune, Bokuzen Hidari, and Kyoko Kagawa. The drama about Mifune and Kagawa's brittle romance is rightly placed at the centre of the film, the dream that takes form but is dragged down by the general misery is a perfect cornerstone. But it's a film about the suffering of a society so it's important for the narrative to cast a wider net and place the leading conflict in the context of other lives with other motives and other desperate dreams.
The Lower Depths is available on The Criterion Channel.