"If work made life easy, I'd do it." So says one of the residents of the flophouse that serves as the setting for Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths. In fact, some of the residents here do work - there's a tinker who toils away fruitlessly and who ends up selling his tools to buy sake, for instance - but like all the others present, it seems there's little hope of an easy life for him. These others include a fallen samurai, the tinker's dying wife, an alcoholic actor, a prostitute, and, for the first long night of the film's action, a mysterious pilgrim who brings a humanist sensibility to these lower depths before departing the very next day.
Gorky's play was set in tsarist Russia a few years before the revolution, and Kurosawa finds a parallel for this desperate time in mid-19th century Edo (later renamed Tokyo), an era known to be one of great prosperity. This general prosperity is a cruel joke for his characters, remaining as out of reach as the temples that rise up on the rim of the crater-like valley in which the flophouse, piled against the valley wall, quietly goes about its business of deteriorating while the lives inside do the same. Is there hope of a better life? Another character has an answer for this: "People never do anything but repeat themselves."
Kurosawa's film version of The Lower Depths (Jean Renoir adapted the play far less faithfully in 1936) is a bonanza for students of the director and for those with a background in theater (especially traditional Japanese forms, which, I'm told by more learned men than myself, Kurosawa parodies in the film). But western viewers who have come to look to Kurosawa for his terrific entertainment value may find themselves depressed and a little lost. Not that the film has the mysterious cultural insularity of some Japanese film; Kurosawa's themes and methods are largely universal. But the then-recognizable Japanese cast is unfamiliar to us today (save for Toshiro Mifune as a thief and, perhaps, the exquisite Isuzu Yamada, who appeared in Kurosawa's magnificent Throne of Blood that same year). And, as noted above, the cultural idioms in which Kurosawa sometimes engages in the film (as in a ragged musical interlude the residents break into that comments on perceived Buddhist hypocrisy of the day) lack the resonance that would bring meaning to them for us today. Watching these scenes, we're aware that something's going on, but, lacking the tools to decipher just what that something is, the screen time passes by slowly and mysteriously.
But in film terms, some faults of The Lower Depths are as universal as its message. Primary among these is the film's claustrophobic atmosphere; for the first hour and fifteen minutes of the movie, we make only limited excursions out of the tenement, and it begins to feel as though we've moved in ourselves. Kurosawa may have intended this, but it doesn't make for very satisfying viewing. A similar stasis grips the plot; what passes on the stage for action doesn't necessarily do so in the more dynamic medium of film, and the truth is that parts of The Lower Depths drag. But if our patience is tried, what suffers most is our expectations. Throne of Blood, as mentioned above, was a product of the same year as The Lower Depths. It too is a play adaptation (in this case Macbeth), but it's nothing if not alive on the screen. Watching The Lower Depths, we yearn for that sense of cinema.
Criterion has made The Lower Depths available in a two-disk set that includes Renoir's surprisingly lighthearted film and the usual ("usual" for Criterion) wealth of additional material. Cineastes are directed to it for their own good. For the more casual viewer, there's always Renoir.